Originally created 01/19/00

S. Williams is weary, wobbly in victory



MELBOURNE, Australia -- Looking lost, worried and terribly tired, Serena Williams turned to her mother in the stands as if seeking a shoulder to lean on.

Oracene Williams could do no more than stare back glumly and helplessly, her chin on her hands.

They had flown 20 hours from Florida to the Australian Open, arriving jet-lagged just four days before Tuesday night's first-round match. Serena hadn't played a match in three months, her back hurt from a lingering injury and her legs felt dead.

And now an unknown, an Australian wild card playing in her first major tournament, No. 261 Amanda Grahame, stood across the net -- two games from sending the U.S. Open champion and her mother/coach right back home.

Somehow, the third-seeded Williams summoned the strength to serve out the next game at love, then break Grahame on the third match-point to win 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. It was a two-hour test of endurance and will that began in muggy heat and ended, after a half-hour rain delay in the second set, under the center court's retractable roof.

"I can't picture myself losing until the last point is over and I'm shaking her hand, thinking, 'I can't believe it,"' the 18-year-old Williams said. "She played well and she thought she was going to win at 4-4. I have that never-say-die spirit. It's just innate, and I'm glad I had it. You can't buy it."

She needed every bit of that spirit to avoid her first opening-round exit from a major.

Williams, wearing a bright ketchup-red dress and matching shoes, made 57 varieties of mistakes to put herself in position to lose.

Her first mistake was flying into Australia more than a week after all the other top players.

"Maybe I should have played a warmup or maybe I should have come here earlier," she conceded.

Her second mistake were those red sneakers, an eye-popping target for linesmen who called eight foot-faults against her.

"I'm not giving up the red shoes," she insisted. "I'm just going to move back."

Then there were her 55 unforced errors -- an assortment of wildly slapped volleys and groundstrokes sprayed wide and long and into the net.

"It was really out of control the way I played today," she said. "I can't say that because I was off for three months -- that gives me an excuse. There was no excuse for the way I played today, really."

Then, checking her watch, she thought of one pretty good excuse when told that her mother thought she looked jet-lagged and sluggish.

"Usually my legs don't work after 4 o'clock in the morning, in my time (zone), and it's now 7 o'clock," she said. "They usually get started back around 8 o'clock, so they should be working in about 55 minutes."

Perhaps the best explanation for why Williams struggled lay in the inspired play of Grahame, a slender 20-year-old left-hander who served at up to 110 mph and played fearlessly from start to finish.

Williams knew nothing about Grahame -- "I really wouldn't have been able to recognize her if she was standing right in front of me," she said -- but found out quickly enough more than she wanted to know. No left-hander she had ever faced served so well, taking her off the court with angled serves in the corner on the ad side and producing five aces.

Those serves, and Grahame's poised play, helped her fend off a dozen of the 17 break points Williams held in the match.

"I wasn't sure what to expect of myself," Grahame said at her first news conference. "I thought I was going to be really nervous and pretty shaky, but after winning the first game (breaking Williams on the fourth break point) I could kind of enjoy it and play my own game. I didn't expect too much from myself."

Grahame delivered more than everyone, especially Williams, expected, and she was rewarded with a long, loud ovation by the sellout crowd when she departed.

"That was incredible," Grahame said. "I wasn't sure how to react, really. It was just overwhelming."