First defending women's champ loses in opener

NEW YORK -- Svetlana Kuznetsova turned in another surprise at the U.S. Open. The wrong kind.

Kuznetsova became the first defending women's champion to lose in the first round Monday, falling 6-3, 6-2 to fellow Russian Ekaterina Bychkova. After shaking hands with Bychkova, she quickly picked up her racket bag and hustled off the court.

"I was ready, but I wasn't at my best," she said. "Now nobody will disturb me about this. Nobody will say nothing to me. I'll just relax and take some time off, I guess, and just prepare for the next events.

"I've learned a lesson and it's tough. But the tough things make you grow stronger and make you learn," she said.

Kuznetsova became the fourth defending women's champ to lose in the first round of a major tournament since the Open era began in 1968. It also happened to Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1994, to Jennifer Capriati at the 2003 Australian Open and to Anastasia Myskina at this year's French Open.

It has happened four times on the men's side.

Patrick Rafter is the only other defending U.S. Open champion to lose in the first round, withdrawing with a shoulder injury in the fifth set in 1999.

The other top seeds had an easier time. After falling behind 3-1 in the second set, Serena Williams rallied to win the last five and beat Yung-Jan Chan of Taiwan 6-1, 6-3. Her sister, Venus, beat Rika Fujiwara of Japan 6-3, 6-1, and Kim Clijsters continued her sizzling summer, needing 53 minutes to beat Germany's Martina Muller 6-1, 6-2 victory.

Women's top seed Maria Sharapova got off to a smart start, dispatching Greece's Eleni Daniilidou 6-1, 6-1.

Of the half-dozen young Russians marching up the ranks in women's tennis, Kuznetsova was the least known until she won the U.S. Open. But the victory seems to have brought almost as much grief as joy. Everywhere she's gone for the last year, she's been asked about defending her title and the pressure it carries.

"I know how you feel when you don't have any gas and you can't go anymore. I think it's something else," Kuznetsova said. "I have to find out what that is. It just takes a while to learn it. It takes a while to play with pressure."

Bychkova, who came through the junior ranks with Kuznetsova, showed no sign of nerves in her first Grand Slam appearance, breaking three times on her way to winning the first set.

The 20-year-old then broke in the first and third games of the second set to lead 3-0 before Kuznetsova gave herself a glimmer of hope by getting one of the breaks back.

But Bychkova broke again in the next game and clinched victory on her second match point when Kuznetsova made her 45th unforced error of the match.

Kuznetsova was a surprise winner here last year, but she hasn't been able to recapture that magic since then. She did make the quarterfinals at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon and lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne in the finals in Warsaw, Poland.

But she hasn't gotten past the third round since Wimbledon and was bothered by a back injury in her loss in Toronto two weeks ago.

Though she said Sunday that her back was fine, something was definitely off Monday. Facing a player whose previous career highlight was an upset of top-seeded Francesca Schiavone at a satellite event last December, Kuznetsova was overwhelmed. She had a whopping 45 errors, five times as many as Bychkova, and only 15 winners.

When the ball flew past the baseline on match point, Bychkova gave a little shriek and pumped her fist. Kuznetsova walked back to her chair, no expression on her face.

Serena Williams hasn't played much since winning the Australian Open, her seventh Grand Slam title. She pulled out of the French Open with an ankle injury and showed up out of shape at Wimbledon, where she lost in the third round.

She didn't play again until a tournament in Toronto two weeks ago, and the rust showed. She struggled with her mobility, having trouble getting to shots within her reach, and then withdrew before the third round with a knee injury.

Though she came to the Open in better shape, the eighth-seeded Williams still has work to do.

Her timing seemed off, and her play was sloppy for much of the match. She had 26 errors compared with 21 winners and got her first serve in only 53 percent of the time. She also had two double faults, including one that allowed Chan to break her in the second set, and was caught off-balance a few times by Chan's pokey second serves.

Chan, a 16-year-old qualifier, was making her first appearance at both a Grand Slam and a WTA Tour event. She appeared nervous at the start, looking more like a practice partner as Williams took the first three games in eight minutes.

But Chan seemed to gain confidence in the second set, breaking Williams with stunning speed in the fourth game.

The teen won the first two points before Williams appeared to have her on the run at the baseline. Williams pushed a little shot over the net, but Chan raced forward and hit a forehand that landed within inches of the line, surprising Williams and the crowd.

There were cheers of "C'mon Serena!" as Williams went to serve. The encouragement didn't help, though, and Williams double-faulted to give Chan her first break and a 3-1 lead.

"I didn't get tired at all, I think I just started out flat," Williams said. "Maybe I was thinking about something else. I just was really flat. I knew it. I was like, 'Serena, get more pep in your step.' Once I got down, I just got a little more footwork."

The little pep talk worked. Chan actually had two chances to go up 4-1, but Williams refused to give in. She hit a nice backhand and then won the game when Chan put a backhand into the net.

"You know, she's Serena," Chan said when asked if she thought she had a chance to win.

Williams broke the teen again and then took a quick 40-0 lead in the eighth game. She double-faulted again and then closed out the game when Chan hit a running forehand into the net. Chan did her best to extend the match, saving two match points. But Williams was too much, running her around the court before closing out the match with the drop shot.

The Williams' victories keep them on track to meet in the fourth round, much earlier than either would like.

"It definitely could be very soon, but the only way to think about it is just play to get there, don't go out before," Serena Williams said. "That's all we can do."

Sharapova, the Russian world No. 2, saved six break points in her first two service games before stepping up a gear to ease to victory in 66 minutes, finishing off the match with a sublime backhand topspin lob.

"I felt really good. It feels good to get back into action," she said.

"I think there's always room for improvement and hopefully I'll keep improving," she said.

Clijsters completed an impressive workout on the Louis Armstrong court with a thunderous first serve.

"I'm very happy with the way I'm playing so far in this whole summer here in America," said the 22-year-old baseliner, who roared into the year's final Grand Slam after hardcourt titles won in Stanford, Los Angeles and Toronto.

Clijsters, who missed last year's U.S. Open because of an injured wrist, said she had been eager to get started.

"I was really, really excited coming here," said Clijsters. "I drove down here on Thursday and got to practice on center court a couple of times. It felt very good."

The Belgian has been runner-up four times in Grand Slam championships -- twice at the French Open and once each at the Australian and U.S. Opens.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.