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Falling Stars

An Aussie Open short on big names lost another with Venus Williams's latest defeat

to the dismay of many--not least, surely, the title sponsor--tennis's first Grand Slam event of 2006 has been all but officially renamed the Injury-Ravaged Australian Open. Owing to physical woes wrought by tennis's increasingly grueling scheduling and conditions, Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi and defending champion Marat Safin are all truant from Melbourne, while a good many other top players began the tournament nursing aches and ailments. Midway through the first day the event lost still another star when Venus Williams fell to the 94th-ranked player, Bulgarian teenager Tszvetana Pironkova, 2--6, 6--0, 9--7.

The sad spectacle of Williams the Elder--not long ago, the dominant player in the women's game--flopping on the sport's largest stages has lost its shock value. (With the exception of her glorious, unexpected run to the Wimbledon title last summer, Williams, 25, hasn't so much as reached a Grand Slam semifinal since 2003.) Still, Monday's desultory defeat revealed just what a shard she is of her former self. Against a player she once would have beaten in roughly the time it takes to read this paragraph, Williams played tactically vacant tennis, compounded by an almost relentless inaccuracy that, at times, seemed inspired by Mike Vanderjagt. Routine forehands sailed yards beyond the baseline; serves bounced before hitting the net. In the final set alone Williams committed nearly twice as many unforced errors (41) as Pironkova made in the entire match. Perhaps most stunning, deep in the third set it was Pironkova, performing in her first Grand Slam match, who was the steadier player.

In what has also become a numbingly familiar routine, Williams was in denial afterward. Even as her aura has steadily diminished, Williams has resisted suggestions that she rethink her approach to the sport by, say, hiring an experienced coach to supplement her mother, Oracene, or retooling her unreliable forehand or improving her fitness. After this latest flameout, she didn't seem any closer to making changes. "I couldn't get it right today, but in general I am playing really well," she said in a postmortem press conference that seemed oddly hollow. "Obviously, [Pironkova] benefited from my largesse."

There's something to be said for largesse, of course. But for the sake of salvaging a once great career, Williams would do well to leave the generosity to others and figure out a way to be less profligate with her considerable gifts.



EARLY EXIT Williams went out in the first round for the third time in her Grand Slam career.