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Courtesy of the Sydney Herald.

Fears for mcnamee's safety put on hold as Venus manages to stay in orbit

By Richard Hinds

As Venus Williams was losing the first set of her third-round match in Rod Laver Arena yesterday, a concerned official removed all the sharp objects from tournament director Paul McNamee's office. At the same time, security at Pete Sampras's and Jennifer Capriati's hotels was doubled.

As it turned out, Williams fought her way out of trouble, finally putting away the surprisingly feisty Slovak Daniela Hantuchova 3-6 6-0 6-4. So McNamee got his paper clips back. But the way things have gone this past week, no-one is taking anything for granted.

With the men's draw already gutted by injuries and upsets, the concluding stages of the Australian Open hold a few decent possibilities. The most compelling is Sampras cutting a path to the final. The most reliable is the old second-week standby: send in the divas. Yet, in this tournament of horrors, not even that seems guaranteed.

With Serena Williams a pre-tournament casualty, big sister Venus had caused nervous moments by limping through the second round with her left knee heavily bandaged. So bizarre are the ways of the Williams clan, that probably means Venus has a sprained wrist. But the talented Hantuchova gave the No2 seed a thorough examination anyway, hitting a series of tricky drop shots that forced Williams to stretch her legs.

The good news for the endangered McNamee was that Williams's knee survived with flying colours. Significantly, her heart is also in good shape and she maintains her chances of winning what some - perhaps those who haven't yet seen her play at Roland Garros - predict will be the first leg of a grand slam. "I felt I could do quite a lot more than I could the other days, so that's exciting for me," she said.

Williams has also brought the air of superiority that was so apparent during her back-to-back victories at Wimbledon and the US Open.

She is one of the few players who doesn't bother to waft an apologetic hand vaguely in the direction of her opponent when she gets a favourable net-cord. Yet, the same hand works perfectly well when she needs to remind a linesperson that a ball is out. Williams's struggle was an indication that the depth in the women's game is now so great, top seeds are forced to perspire as early as the third round. Monica Seles also struggled a bit before beating Italian Francesca Schiavone 6-4 6-4.

Even if you were not at Melbourne Park to see Seles's match, if you were in the same telephone code you could hear it. Seles does not quite have the same commanding game that earned her nine grand slam titles. But she still does not lack grunt.

Most likely, Seles will meet Williams in the quarter-finals and, if Williams is fit, her chances would seem slim. Whatever the outcome, from what Seles said, there would be no ill-feeling.

From their press-room comments in recent years, you could be forgiven for thinking some of the top women - if only in a professional wrestling sense - are at each other's throats. But, disappointingly, Seles said they were chummier than ever.

"I was fortunate enough to see it when Chrissie [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova] were there, and there definitely didn't feel to be much camaraderie at that stage," she said. "And when Steffi [Graf], myself and Martina were there, definitely no camaraderie there."

If one job is likely to increase stress levels more than being Australian Open tournament organiser, it is being Australian Davis Cup team captain. With no Pat Rafter, no Mark Philippoussis and, as of yesterday, no Lleyton Hewitt, John Fitzgerald was last seen thumbing the phone book for Brod ****'s home number.

Andrew Ilie may be left to fly the flag in Argentina, so at least Australia will put up an entertaining struggle. If Ilie proves to be half as popular in Buenos Aires as he is everywhere else, they might even ask him to be president of the week. Fitzgerald put on a brave face yesterday but, realistically, the Australian team has been weakened so badly it might consider abandoning this match and preparing for a relegation battle against a team with which they are more evenly matched. Like the Falkland Islands.

Even Tennis Australia's plans to rescue Taylor Dent from his American captors were aborted yesterday after Digger Dent lost in five sets to Romanian Adrian Voinea amid cries of "Yankee go home". That left yet another gaping hole in the charisma-free zone that is the bottom half of the men's draw.
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