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The Williamses chomp the Czechs

By Matthew Cronin

Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA, Inc.
FROM THE FED CUP IN LOWELL, MASS. – There were a few moments in Serena Williams 7-5, 6-1 victory over Iveta Benesova in the first round of Fed Cup on Saturday that it appeared that the Czech was going Emilie Loit on her.

Recall that lefty Loit nearly knocked Serena out of the first round of the '03 Aussie Open before Serena regained her stride. Benesova is a much more straightforward player than the tricky Loit, who slices, dices, dips and dunks. But Benesova has a hard, consistent slice serve and can roll a forehand crazily away from a right hander's backhand.

For whatever reason – and it had to be that Serena wasn't listening to her coaches – Serena went on court having no idea in which hand her foe placed her racket in. Maybe Billie Jean King and Zina Garrison should tape a scouting report on Serena's strings on Sunday.

"It threw me off, her being a lefty," Serena said. "I didn't know she was a lefty. I figured I was playing a right-hander."

King was mollified. "I can' believe it! That's great. Well, I'm going to get fired, that's for sure. I'm out of here."

Laughter rang through the interview room after that exchange, as it has much of the week around Lowell, including last night, when Serena, Venus and Zina braided Meghann Shaughnessy's hair. (She washed it out immediately.)

But the 0-2 deficit the Czechs find themselves in is no laughing matter. The young Benesova acquitted herself nicely, but Daja Bedanova is till in deep funk and Venus threw her deep into the Merrimack River 6-1, 6-0 to get the US off to a quick start.

Playing her first match in five weeks, Venus looked as good as she has all year, crushing 29 winners to only three from her foe, 12 of which were aces. The Premier indoor court at the sold-out Tsongas Arena is super quick and it suited Venus high-octane "A" game very well, as she bent low and slung bullets to the corners.

Although Bedanova tried to put pressure on Williams by sometimes attacking the net behind her first serve, Venus was happy to have chances to pass her and often left the thin Czech gasping.
Venus even threw in an impressive Slam Dunk overhead – a la Pete Sampras (the seven-time Wimbledon champ, not Venus' dearly departed dog).

"All of a sudden, my legs went up and there I was," Venus said. "I wasn't thinking about it. I just did it. It was so much fun."

Bedanova is a talented player, but her ground game – especially her soft and often errant backhand – is a disaster. As well as Venus played, there's no reason that a player who reached No. 16 last year should only manage to win a game when she is her country's lead player.

Bedanova should take a page out of Venus' book, who was remarkably focused.

"The tension and the competition is different at Fed Cup," Venus said. "I really wanted to play well for my team and not just for me. My intensity was at a different level because of that."

Playing in her first match since losing the final of Charleston to Justine Henin-Hardenne, Serena played a very sloppy first set, almost completely losing control of her backhand. After one such miscue when she was broken to 4-4, the 21-year-old slammed her racket to the ground in disgust.

Benesova held to 5-4 and held a set point on Williams' serve, but Serena smoked a service winner out wide. Williams need four set points to close out the first set and won it when she whacked another service winner.

"I was going for too much," Serena said. "I think I should have just took some pace off the ball and tried to move her around, which I've been doing the past year and a half, as opposed to just blasting every ball."

Serena found her range in the second set, breaking Benesova to open the set and then stomping on her foe behind an effective first service and big returns.

"I've played against some guys and her serve is almost the same," Benesova said.

Czech captain Petra Langrova is hoping that Bedanova regains her confidence overnight, but that seems highly unlikely. Serena will face Bedanova in the potentially tie-clinching first match of Sunday, followed by Venus against Benesova, and a doubles match between the Williamses and Eva Birnerova/Klara Koukalova.

If the U.S. wins this tie – which is as sure of a bet as BJK mentioning the word "character" in tomorrow's press conference – it will be interesting to see who commits to their July tie. Venus seems enthusiastic about it, but Serena isn't sure. Whatever the case, if this team stays together, they could challenge the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova-Pam Shriver 1986 squad as being the best ever.
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