Originally created 01/19/98

Heat on for Australian Open



MELBOURNE, Australia -- As if the weather isn't hot enough, the Australian Open begins Monday with a blast from the fiery past as Serena Williams takes on the player her father lambasted as "a big, tall, white turkey."

Richard Williams' memorable description of Irina Spirlea at the U.S. Open last September came after the Romanian deliberately bumped Venus Williams during a changeover in the semifinals.

"She ought to be glad it wasn't Serena she bumped into. She would have been decked," said Richard Williams, who thought the collision was racially motivated.

Spirlea didn't mince words when asked about the incident, cursing Williams at a news conference. For that, Spirlea earned a $5,000 fine and secured a feisty reputation reminiscent of compatriot Ilie Nastase.

Serena, 16, was an innocent bystander that day, watching it all unfold and seeing Venus, 17, come back to win the match and go to the final of her first U.S. Open.

This time, Serena will have her chance against the sixth-seeded Spirlea, and she'll be on guard.

"I hope we don't do a bump," Serena said when she saw the draw. "I'm going to go around the other side."

If Serena can't handle Spirlea, Venus may get another shot at her in the second round. And if Serena does win, the Williams sisters may face each other.

Venus opens night play Monday against Alexia Dechaume-Balleret.

A year ago, an obscure player shook the Australian Open by becoming the first man in 20 years to knock out the defending champion in the opening round of a Grand Slam event.

Pete Sampras, the defending men's champion and top seed this year, is on alert not to succumb to the same fate Monday that befell Boris Becker last year.

Sampras' first-round opponent is Sjeng Schalken of the Netherlands, every bit as unknown as Carlos Moya was last year when he beat Becker after a 3«-hour, five-set struggle in brutal heat.

Temperatures in Melbourne in recent days have soared over 100 degrees, and if they spike up again Monday anything could happen -- especially to a player such as Sampras, who has problems in the heat.

Moya was ranked No. 25 when he upset Becker then surged against all odds to the final. He comes back this year seeded No. 7. The 21-year Schalken, born 12 days after Moya, is ranked No. 51. And, like Moya a year ago, his only experience at the Australian has been quick first-round exits.

Which makes Schalken a perfectly unlikely, and perfectly logical, player to do unto Sampras what Moya did unto Becker. Not to mention that, like Moya, Schalken can play some pretty good tennis when he's on. At 6-foot-3, he has a big serve and a good all-court game. His loss in Australia a year ago came stubbornly at 8-6 in the fifth set against two-time champion Jim Courier.

Opening day at the Australian has often been filled with upsets. Maybe it's the weather. Maybe it's the time of year, when the players are just getting back from monthlong vacations and their timing is not quite at a peak.

Whatever the reasons, the potential for upsets loom again.