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Earthly delight for Venus

Williams is at home on Wimbledon lawn

LONDON -- At its worst, Wimbledon is dull matches, bad bounces, and rain interrupted by occasional tennis. There was all of that yesterday, and Venus Williams minded not a bit.

She liked the way the grass put extra spring in her gangly gait. She liked the way the slick surface made her booming strokes even more formidable, and the way the Court 1 crowd reacted when she hit a rare errant shot.

"There was a collective sigh," Williams said. "I was like, `What's going on here?' I'm used to people being very nice, but not so nice like that."

Reaffirming that Wimbledon brings out her best, Williams beat Marie-Gayanay Mikaelian, 6-3, 6-0. The first-round match lasted 48 minutes, two minutes less than the rain delay that halted play late in the first set.

It was a polished performance by the sometimes-ragged Williams, who had just 11 unforced errors and 26 winners, with seven aces to one double-fault. She struggled only with her stylish new Diane von Furstenberg outfit, tugging at the front of her sleeveless top to pull it up after almost every point.

Despite the fashion distraction, Williams improved to 26-0 since 2000 at the All England Club against opponents other than younger sister Serena.

"I'm always happy to be back. It's so nice," Venus said. "I just have a lot of fun on this surface."

Ranked eighth but seeded third, she's ready for some fun after spending the past year battling injuries and rust. She hasn't advanced beyond the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event since Wimbledon in 2003, when she reached the final despite an abdominal injury before losing to Serena.

"That was such a long time ago," Venus said. "I've hardly played in an event healthy or prepared. It's been very difficult."

Against Mikaelian, Williams wore tape on her right wrist and both ankles. She pulled out of the German Open final last month with a twisted left ankle and said she has since aggravated the injury a couple of times. She said the abdominal ailment has healed -- she hopes -- but jokes about her fragility, telling her trainer, "If I laugh too hard, I might get injured."

Serena Williams, the two-time defending champion, begins today against Zheng Jie. Serena, who hasn't won a Grand Slam title in a year, could become only the third woman in the past 35 years to win three consecutive Wimbledon championships.

Among women winners were No. 5 Lindsay Davenport, No. 11 Ai Sugiyama, and No. 13 Maria Sharapova. Men's winners included No. 6 Juan Carlos Ferrero, No. 10 Sebastian Grosjean, and No. 17 Jonas Bjorkman.

Lleyton Hewitt, the 2002 champion who is seeded No. 7, beat Jurgen Melzer, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. Last year, Hewitt became the first defending men's champion to go out in the first round since 1967 when he lost to Ivo Karlovic.

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