Serena Is Weighed Down by a Lack of Practice; Defending Champion Finds the Going Too Heavy as She Crashes out in the Third Round Following a Long Battle with Injury, Chris Jones Reports from Melbourne

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Byline: CHRIS JONES

From the playground to the Premiership Football's wonderkids: Pages 70&71 DEFENDING champion Serena Williams crashed out of the Australian Open today, beaten 6-1, 7-6 by Daniela Hantuchova in a match that raised serious questions about her ability to become a major force again following injury problems.

Having fallen so early in the tournament, the former world No1 could drop down the ranking lists to the relative anonymity of the mid-40s - a massive blow to her standing in the sport, as well as to her ego.

Serena arrived in Melbourne looking heavy and desperately short of match practise, not having played in 2006. These handicaps conspired to help Hantuchova, coached by Britain's Nigel Sears, to record her first win in four attempts against the American.

Even though Williams was seeded No13, four places above Hantuchova, the tall, slim Slovakian turned that ranking on its head despite wasting four match points on the way to a victory that now gives her a fourth successfully battled back from fears over her rapid loss of weight in recent years. "It should be a great match and I always believe in myself.

"I just kept fighting against Serena and you never know what can happen."

The temperature for their clash on Sunday is expected to be up to a scorching 109F, which means the roof will have to be closed to artificially regulate the centre court arena.

Meanwhile, Sharapova today revealed she won the Wimbledon title and became world No1 using her weaker arm and could switch to being a left hander at any time during a match.

After defeating Croatia's Jelena Kostanic 6-0, 6-1 in 68 minutes, the Russian explained: "I am naturally a lefty, so I do practice it once in a while just to kind of balance it off. …