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Tennis-Russians stage early Open party

Tennis-Russians stage early Open party

Marat Safin provided the power and purpose and Anna Kournikova the fizz and colour as the two Russians grabbed centre stage on the first day of the Australian Open on Monday.

Tim Henman, one of Britain's few hopes in the season-opening grand slam event, was all business as he eased past Moroccan Hicham Arazi and four-times winner Monica Seles was on court for the blink of an eye before her opponent retired hurt.

Defending men's champion Andre Agassi followed Henman onto court for a relatively uneventful 6-0 7-5 6-3 win over Jiri Vanek of the Czech Republic.

The towering Safin at least temporarily allayed fears that the recurrence of an elbow injury might cut short his campaign in Melbourne, the second seed serving himself out of trouble to beat Spaniard Galo Blanco 6-4 1-6 6-4 7-6.

Safin, the U.S. Open champion, has had little to celebrate in Melbourne lately. He was fined for not trying in a first-round loss at the Open last year and pulled out of a warm-up tournament last week with an elbow injury.

HAPPY WITH PROGRESS

The 1.93 m (6ft 4in) Moscovite said he was happy with his progress, and that he had been able to play well at important times against Blanco on centre court at Melbourne Park.

"For the moment it's okay, and I can serve," Safin said.

"I hope I will serve like this for the next week... two weeks," he told reporters.

Safin showed flashes of his notorious temper during the match but said he was unable to moderate the passion which resulted in him smashing no fewer than 48 rackets during matches last year.

"It's my character. How can I change my character? It's impossible," said Safin, who came within a whisker of finishing 2000 as the number one player in the world.

"I'm doing well. Even breaking 50 rackets, I was number one or two in the world," he said.

The stylish Kournikova broke new fashion ground when she paraded a distinctive black and yellow outfit against the unproven Daniela Hantuchova on court one.

Still without a professional singles title, eighth seed Kournikova was a cut above the 17-year-old Slovakian and won 6-2 7-5 in 77 minutes.

FIRST GRAND SLAM TOURNAMENT

She was down 0-3 in the second set but quickly regained control against Hantuchova, who was playing in her first grand slam tournament.

"In the second set I think that I relaxed a little bit and started to make mistakes. I was too defensive but then I found my rhythm again," Kournikova said afterwards.

Kournikova will now meet Hungarian Rita Kuti Kis in the second round after Kuti Kis beat Italy's Francesca Schiavone 7-6 1-6 6-4.

Former world number one Seles had hardly broken a sweat before her match against fellow American Brie Rippner was over.

Rippner retired hurt at 1-0 in the first set after falling and twisting her ankle.

The 20-year-old was treated on court, her left ankle visibly swollen and bruised, before she announced she could not continue.

Fourth seed Seles - four times a winner in Melbourne - suffered some discomfort of her own. She complained after the match that she was suffering from a minor virus and welcomed the chance for a couple of days' rest.

DANGEROUS OPPONENT

Eighth seed Henman made a no-nonsense start against a dangerous opponent who made the quarter-finals in Melbourne last year, beating Arazi 7-6 6-4 6-4 to reach the second round.

Britain's Henman will need to maintain that attitude after he was drawn in a talent-packed half of the draw which includes Safin, Australian hero Pat Rafter and former champions Agassi and Pete Sampras.

Defending women's champion Lindsay Davenport is to kick off the evening session of play against troubled teenager Jelena Dokic.

Dokic has said she will play under a Yugoslav flag instead of for her adopted home of Australia after her family raised concerns over the tournament draw and over her treatment by the Australian media.

Third-seeded Sampras will then play Karol Kucera of Slovakia.


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