Not even Anna Kournikova, showing more navel than Britney Spears, could fill the Sydney International Tennis Centre at Homebush yesterday as spectators, put off by morning rain and the afternoon's 30-degree temperatures, opted for the shade.
In front of a half-full centre court, Kournikova, in her first match this season in Australia, put in an erratic performance in beating Spain's Angeles Montolio 6-4 6-1 in one hour in the first round of the Sydney International.
"I'm extremely pleased the way the match went. I was playing really smart," the Russian said afterwards. "The conditions are extremely difficult and it was like walking in a sauna."
Greeted by wolf whistles when she made her way onto the court - and again when she left it - Kournikova, attired in a sleeveless two-piece creation, alternated line-splitting drives with wild unforced errors to overwhelm her 23rd-ranked opponent.
Kournikova's game, brilliant at best but brittle most of the time, was on song early in the match as she sped to a 3-0 lead on the back of a barrage of groundstroke winners.
But the dogged baseline retrieving of Montolio began to draw unforced errors from her opponent, particularly from her forehand, and she pulled back to 3-2. However, Kournikova re-imposed her stronger all-round game, and her willingness to come to the net and take chances on second-serve returns netted her the first set 6-4.
With the WTA's rule on extreme weather conditions invoked, allowing for a 10-minute break between the second and third sets when the heat stress index is 28 degrees or more, both players left the centre-court arena briefly.
The interruption did little to break Kournikova's rhythm and the second set followed the trend of the first, though Montolio aided Kournikova's passage into the second round with a generous sprinkling of unforced errors.
While Kournikova's serve held up well against Montolio - she served only two double faults - the pressure of putting in a good delivery will increase significantly in today's second-round match against the women's third seed, Serena Williams.
"[I'm] just going to try my best and work really hard," said Kournikova. "It is going to be a new match for both of us, for me to play a top player and for her to play her first match of the year."
Their encounter, the fourth on centre court, will be only the second time the pair have met in singles play, Kournikova having fallen to the American 6-3 6-2 at the du Maurier Open, Montreal, in 2000.
Also through in the women's draw is American qualifier Alexandra Stevenson, who now faces compatriot and top seed Jennifer Capriati following a tough 6-1 6-7 (7-5) 7-5 win over Iroda Tulyaganova.
Joining her in the second round are Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova, Italian Sylvia Farina Elia, and Spaniard Conchita Martinez.
You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen. It said, 'Parking Fine.'So that was nice.
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