For one set, Venus Williams looked every bit the reigning Wimbledon champion.
Then, the rust of a long layoff caught up with her in a flurry of errors Monday as she was knocked out of the Australian Open in the first round by Bulgaria's Tszvetana Pironkova 2-6, 6-0, 9-7 in 2 1/2 hours.
"I couldn't get it right today. But in general, I am playing really well," said Williams, who hadn't played at tour level since late September. "It's just like, 'Wow, it was the wrong time to hit wrong.'"
Venus wasn't the only one to struggle in the season-opening Grand Slam event.
Her sister, defending champion Serena, had her own lapses and survived a major workout from 52nd-ranked Li Na of China, who frequently had her breathless from running sideline to sideline.
Serena, seeded 13th, was broken as she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set - double-faulting twice at 15-30 - and won only one point in the tiebreak before she pulled herself back together and finished off a 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-2 victory.
Top-seeded Lindsay Davenport advanced with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Australian wild-card entry Casey Dellacqua, while David Nalbandian had to fend off a gutsy comeback attempt by Thai qualifier Danai Udomchoke to win 6-2, 6-2, 1-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1.
Fourth-seeded Maria Sharapova showed no signs of her sore right shoulder, smacking 20 winners while downing Germany's Sandra Kloesel 6-2, 6-1.
Second-seeded Andy Roddick, rebounding from a first-round loss at the U.S. Open, didn't get the first ace from his powerful serve until the second set but still had minimal trouble in beating Switzerland's Michael Lammer 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. He ended up with seven aces, the last on match point.
Venus Williams, the No. 10 seed committed a woeful 65 unforced errors - 41 in the tense final set in which she was broken while serving for the match at 6-5 - to 22 for Pironkova. It was only the third time in 34 Grand Slam tournaments that she has lost in the first round. The last time was the 2001 French Open.
No. 8 Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium, the 2004 champion, beat Marta Domchowska of Poland 6-2, 6-2.
Former Wimbledon semifinalist Jelena Dokic, a wild card in her first Australian Open since 2001, crumbled after thinking she'd won in straight sets. Dokic celebrated a forehand on match point at 6-5 in the second set, but it was called long. Virginie Razzano of France rallied to win 3-6 7-6 (6) 6-1. Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, seeded 17th, overcame Japan's Saori Obata 3-6, 6-3, 6-0 and No. 6 Nadia Petrova defeated Australia's Sophie Ferguson 6-2, 6-1.
No. 9 Elena Dementieva, a semifinalist at the last U.S. Open, was the first seeded player to fall, losing 7-5, 6-2 to Germany's Julia Schruff. No. 24 Tatiana Golovin and No. 26 Ai Sugiyama soon followed Dementieva. Golovin lost 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 to Mara Santangelo, and Sugiyama 6-4, 6-3 to Conchita Martinez of Spain.
On the men's side, No. 8 seed Gaston Gaudio, the 2004 French Open champion, was leading 6-2, 5-0 when Romania's Razvan Sabau retired with an injured arm.
Also advancing were No. 7 Ivan Ljubicic, No. 11 David Ferrer, No. 13 Robby Ginepri, No. 16 Tommy Robredo, No. 17 Radek Stepanek, No. 18 Mario Ancic and No. 20 James Blake, the winner in Sydney last week. No. 27 Taylor Dent lost to Spain's Guillermo Garcia Lopez and former No. 1-ranked Carlos Moya went down to Andrei Pavel.
Taiwan's Wang Yeu-tzuoo won the first Grand Slam singles match of his brief professional career yesterday when his opponent, Argentina's Mariano Zabaleta, retired while trailing 6-2, 7-5, 4-1 in the first round of the Australian Open.
While Wang continued his strong form, Taiwan's other singles hope Lu Yen-hsun fell to Italian Daniele Bracciali 6-1, 7-6, 6-2. Wang was immediately pressured when Zabaleta broke serve in the second game of the first set, but took advantage of the 27-year-old Argentinian's 18 unforced errors to break him three times and win the set 6-2 in 29 minutes.
The 73-minute second set seemed to sap Zabaleta's energy. Trailing 5-3, he broke Wang and then survived a service game that went to deuce nine times. Wang, however, won the next two games, finally clinching the set on his eighth set point.
The 20-year-old Taiwan native coasted to a 4-1 lead in third set before Zabaleta pulled out. Wang next faces 26th seed Jarkko Niemenen of Finland.
While Wang advanced, Lu struggled, losing the first set, committing 15 unforced errors and failing to convert any of six break point opportunities. He recovered from a 5-2 deficit in the second set to force a tiebreaker, but lost five of his service points in the deciding game to yield the set. Lu then provided only token resistance in the third set, losing the final four games.
He will now travel to Hawaii and Florida for challenger-level tournaments. and has yet to commit for Taiwan's first round Davis Cup match against Pakistan here that begins February 10.