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Serena flexes her muscles in Sydney

SERENA Williams rebounded from her shaky start to the year with an awesome demonstration of her Australian Open intent at the Sydney International yesterday. The world No. 2 showed no signs of rustiness in her scrappy first-round win over Samantha Stosur as she demolished Italy's Sara Errani 6-1, 6-2.

The American belted nine aces past her bewildered opponent in an ominous warning to her rivals ahead of next week's first grand slam of the season.

"I played a little better today but I can still improve on some things and that's what I want to do," the younger of the Williams sister said. "I don't want to peak too soon, I just want to stay level for the whole season."

The powerful Russian contingent also flexed their muscles with Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova all advancing to today's quarterfinals.

World No. 3 Safina was ruthless in her 6-3, 6-0 win over fellow Russian Vera Dushevina, while Kuznetsova showed her determination to get out of a tight corner in her 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 victory over Estonia's Kaia Kanepi.

Dementieva, who won last week's Auckland Classic in New Zealand, chalked up her seventh straight win this year in defeating Slovakia's Jarmila Gajdosova 6-2, 6-4.

"I think it's very important to play a couple of tournaments before the grand slam just to get used to the game and get good confidence," said Dementieva, who is yet to win a major but took Olympic gold in Beijing.

With the top four seeds, headed by reigning Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, all given byes into the second round, yesterday's men's matches contained plenty of surprises.

Last year's champion, Russian Dmitry Tursunov was bundled out by Richard Gasquet of France 7-6, 6-4, while last week's Brisbane International winner, Czech Radek Stepanek retired in the second set against France's Jeremy Chardy while trailing 6-4, 3-0.

"I felt OK this morning but after about four games into the match I started to feel unwell and then it started affecting the way I was playing," Stepanek said. "After such a great week in Brisbane last week ... I am really disappointed."

Sixth seed Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic struggled to contain the booming serve of Australian Chris Guccione, a finalist in Sydney last year, as he suffered a 3-6, 4-6 defeat.

Eighth-seeded American Mardy Fish fell to Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic while Lleyton Hewitt, a four-time title winner in Sydney, defeated Julien Benneteau of France 5-7, 6-2, 6-4.

Australian Hewitt started his comeback last week after hip surgery and said he was slowly growing in confidence.

"I would have liked to have won in straight (sets) today but that's probably the number one positive to come out of winning a three set match," Hewitt said.


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