Sharapova overcomes challenge; Serena cruises

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams doesn't mind being
perceived as the best in women's tennis, even if she doesn't hold
any Grand Slam titles or the No. 1 ranking.

At her fashion and acting engagements, nobody asks why she
didn't win a Grand Slam tournament last season.

"People always assume that I'm No. 1, and I never correct them
in any way," Williams said. "They always assume, you know, that
I've won the last Grand Slam. I mean, except for the people that
really watch. But other than that, people always assume ... I'm
winning and that I'm No. 1. So, yeah, keep it like that."

The seventh-seeded Williams did her best Wednesday to convince her rivals and other close tennis observers that she's a
championship contender at the Australian Open. She hit 38 crisp
winners in a 6-3, 6-0 win over Dally Randriantefy of Madagascar and
conceded just seven points in the second set.

Williams didn't drop a point on serve in the
second set until the final game when she made two unforced errors.
She set up match point with a curling forehand winner and ended the
match in 48 minutes with her sixth ace.

"I definitely tried to step my game up," said Williams, who
hit 38 winners and only 18 unforced errors.

My form "is definitely getting better and better with each
match," she added. "I hit a lot of winners against a girl that
actually gets a lot of balls back. So I was excited."

Williams is trying to recapture the form that made her the 2003
Australian Open champion. That victory completed her personal Grand
Slam of four consecutive majors. She missed last year's tournament
because of a knee injury.

"I'm feeling really good physically. I'm really proud of how
I'm doing," she said, seemingly reinforcing local betting figures
that make her favorite to win the tournament."

Williams will play 18-year-old Sania Mirza, a 6-2, 6-1 winner
against Petra Mandula, in the next round. Mirza, playing in her first
major, is the first Indian woman to make the third round of a Grand
Slam tournament.

Williams said she didn't know of Mirza but could be sure of one
thing: "I'm pretty sure she's heard of me."

While Williams was off her game last year, three Russians helped themselves to the last three Grand Slam titles.

Two of those -- Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova and U.S. Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova -- dealt with different distractions en
route to the third round.

Fourth-seeded Sharapova sprayed 19 unforced errors and only five winners in the first set against Lindsay Lee-Waters before she
rallied for a 4-6, 6-0, 6-3 win on her sixth match point.

Kuznetsova, seeded fifth, found some sanctuary from questions
about doping for 40 minutes, eliminating Marion Bartoli 6-2, 6-0.

Sharapova gets a day off before her next outing, against Li Na
of China. She'll need it after an energy-sapping outing against an
American mom.

Sharapova, who beat Williams in the
last Wimbledon final, needed six match points to beat Lee-Waters.

Lee-Waters, 27, who has a 4-year-old daughter, had Sharapova
scrambling and the 17-year-old Russian's screeching intensified
with her desperation. Sharapova, who committed 44 unforced errors,
needed to run a bag of ice over her neck and shoulders to cool off
as the temperature rose into the 90s. She looked exhausted.

Sharapova had two in the eighth game of the deciding set and
three on serve before Lee-Waters hit a forehand long to end the
match in 1 hour, 47 minutes.

Desperate to finish the match, Sharapova switched hands to play
a scrambling, lefty forehand two
points from the end.

"It was an amazing match. I think both of us gave it all we've
got," Sharapova said. "In the end, it was just a matter of a few

Lee-Waters, who was nominated as
the WTA Tour's "Most Impressive Newcomer" in 1995, kept up the
heat with a slice backhand that had her younger rival scrambling.

"It was too good from her side in the first set, but I was
letting her dictate," Sharapova said. "Finally I said to myself
'you have to keep fighting, no matter what.' I've had some tough
matches against her, but today was the hardest."

Kuznetsova escaped the doping questions that have beleaguered her this week on the court.

Belgian regional sports minister Claude Eerdekens said Tuesday
that Kuznetsova tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine at a
charity event last month. While ephedrine -- a common ingredient in
cold medicine -- is on the banned list during competition, it's not
off-limits during the offseason.

Kuznetsova said she sought a doctor's advice and was assured the medication she was given conformed with anti-doping regulations.

"When I was on court, I wasn't thinking about it," Kuznetsova
said. "But as I walked off, it all started coming back."

The WTA Tour said Eerdekens erred by releasing the news
prematurely. Eerdekens refused to apologize, and now Kuznetsova is
considering a lawsuit.

"He has to pay for it," she said.

Kuznetsova's only scare during her match came when she nearly did a split while needlessly chasing down Bartoli's forehand on her first match point. She followed with her seventh ace to finish the match.

Two other Russian women won: No. 11 Nadia Petrova and Vera
Douchevina, who upset No. 9 Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-3. Zvonareva double-faulted 11 times.

Three others lost,
including Dinara Safina -- younger sister of Marat Safin -- who took
a set off second-seeded Amelie Mauresmo before falling 2-6, 6-1,

Mauresmo, the Olympic silver medalist and
Australian runner-up in 1999, overcame poor serving in the first
set and reeled off the last 10 consecutive games.

In other women's matches, Evgenia Linetskaya of Russia was a
6-0, 6-2 winner over Martina Sucha, and Li Na beat 28th-seeded
Shinobu Asagoe 6-3, 6-4.

French Open champion Anastasia Myskina, two-time major runner-up Elena Dementieva, top-ranked Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams are in second-round action on Day 4.