Sunday, August 25, 2002

Serena Williams No. 1 in her family - and world

AP Tennis Writer

        NEW YORK — Billie Jean King remembers a coaching session with a confident, 11-year-old Venus Williams. “She already had attitude, which I like,” King says.

        And Williams' younger sister Serena? King doesn't recall much, other than that Serena stood to the side while Venus worked on volleying.

        After quite a bit of time in her sister's shadow, Serena Williams has come to the fore, becoming the No. 1 player in her family — and the world. She's the Williams who'll try to win a third straight Grand Slam title when the U.S. Open starts Monday.

        “I wanted to change. I was tired of being at a certain level. When Venus became No. 1, that motivated me,” Serena said. “I'm more determined than I was.”

        By beating Venus in the finals of the French Open and Wimbledon and going 38-4 with five titles in 2002, Serena overtook her sister in the rankings for the first time and is seeded No. 1 at the Open. Venus, who beat Serena in last year's prime-time final to successfully defend the title, is seeded No. 2. They only can meet in the final.

        The 2001 U.S. Open ended two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and tournament organizers will mark the near-anniversary with ceremonies featuring firefighters and police. The tourney's red-white-and-blue logo has a picture of the Statue of Liberty, and a U.S. flag rescued from the twin towers and later raised by troops in Afghanistan will fly over Arthur Ashe Stadium. There will be extra police, and fans can't bring backpacks or video cameras.

        Lleyton Hewitt is the defending champion, is seeded No. 1, and is coming off a victory at Wimbledon — as close to a dominant player as there is in the more wide-open men's game. His constant retrieving and stinging returns make him the favorite, with 2000 champion Marat Safin and two-time winner Andre Agassi among the contenders. Pete Sampras, a four-time champion and runner-up to Hewitt and Safin, enters with a 20-16 match record this year and a title drought that stretches to July 2000.

        There are plenty of women who'll provide story lines and slick shots during the year's last Grand Slam tournament: '98 champ Lindsay Davenport, out of action from November to July because of a knee injury; '97 winner Martina Hingis, working her way back from May ankle surgery; three-time major champion Jennifer Capriati, who can slug the ball just as hard as Team Williams; Monica Seles, looking for one last major title.

        But right now the sport is dominated by two women named Williams.

        As fifth-seeded Jelena Dokic put it: “You just have to hope they have a bad day.”

        While Serena tries to become the first player to win three consecutive majors since Steffi Graf in 1996, Venus aims at a rarer feat: No woman has won three U.S. Opens in a row since Chris Evert's four from 1975-78.

        The sisters “are a level above everyone else, and that wasn't true only a few years ago,” CBS Sports analyst Mary Carillo said. “Venus has been a very good match player for a couple of years now. Even when she didn't play well, she competed well, and that is the single biggest thing Serena has learned to do this year.

        “Serena's had some rocky matches and hung tough in them. That's a gift that she gave herself just over the last year.”

        Serena, whose first major title came at the 1999 U.S. Open, acknowledges she takes practice more seriously now. Just this week, recovering from left knee tendinitis that forced her to pull out of a tuneup event in Montreal, she was in Florida working with famed coach Nick Bollettieri.

        “My game has matured, and mentally, I've just matured to another level,” Serena said. “That is a major factor in it. Some people mature really late.”

        Not that she's all that old: 21 next month.

        Venus, 15 months older, also keeps getting better. She leads the WTA Tour this year with seven titles, including at the hard-court tuneup in New Haven, Conn., where she beat Davenport 7-5, 6-0 in Saturday's final. But her winning percentage in '02 is .000 against Serena (0-3) — and .946 against everyone else (53-3).

        “I think if I play Serena, I've got to get a little better,” Venus said Saturday.

        While Venus bore the brunt of expectations and media attention in the early going as the sisters emerged as tennis phenoms, Serena really has started enjoying the spotlight. She's quick with a joke, designs her own Puma outfits, and talks about dabbling in acting.

        “They're very different personalities,” said King, the U.S. Fed Cup captain and owner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles. “Venus is much more to herself now, Serena is much more gregarious, likes to socialize more. ... Serena is Hollywood.”

        Ask Serena what changed in the past year and the bottom line is this: She got tired of watching other players collect trophies she felt belonged in her home.

        That simple? Frankly, yes, thanks to her natural talent and developing skills. The power, finesse, court coverage and strategy all melded so quickly.

        “She never liked losing,” Venus said, “even when we were little.”

        As children, Venus recounted, the Williams sisters (Serena is the youngest of five) would have singing contests. While the others would try different songs, Serena picked one and worked on it.

        “If she didn't win,” Venus said, “she'd cry.”

        Williams wins fourth-straight Pilot Pen

        NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Venus Williams is headed to the U.S. Open on a roll.

        Williams, the two-time defending U.S. Open champion, beat Lindsay Davenport 7-5, 6-0 Saturday to win her fourth-straight Pilot Pen title. She's the first woman to win the same tournament four years in a row since Monica Seles did it in the Canadian Open from 1995-98.

        Williams has won 13 straight matches heading into the final Grand Slam event, which begins Monday.

        “Technically I feel pretty sound,” said Williams, who has beaten Davenport for the Pilot Pen title three of the last four years. “I know in the big matches in the Open, the best players have to be able to come through technically.

        “When my techniques start to break, then that's when I start to lose it.”

        She hasn't lost much this year, improving to 51-6 with the win over Davenport, who was playing in her fourth tournament since returning last month from knee surgery. Davenport has made it to two semifinals and two finals in her comeback.

        Davenport started out crisply. She broke the top-seeded Williams in the first game with strong returns and passing shots.

        Up a break in the first set and leading 5-3, Davenport began to unravel with several unforced errors and went winless the rest of the way, losing 10 straight games.

        “Against a lot of players you can have your kind of lapse and it's not that big a deal,” Davenport said. “Against her, she then takes advantage of it. She's able to play better at the bigger moments.”

        Davenport's serve also abandoned her down the stretch. She double-faulted one break in the second set and had trouble getting her first serve in. She won points on just 13 of 34 first serves and only scored on half of her second serves.

        Williams closed out the match by pouncing on Davenport's 86-mph second serve with a backhand crosscourt winner.

        When Williams toughened, she began reaching the shots that eluded her earlier in the match. Williams stepped up the attack and took away Davenport's effective net game.

        “I thought I couldn't let the match continue like that,” Williams said. “It takes time before any player can really get to the level where they can be able to come back against great players like Lindsay. I'm really happy I'm at that level now.”

        Davenport said despite the loss, she's pleased with her comeback and preparation for the U.S. Open.

        “I'm in a much better mind frame now that I've come here and played well than if I'd not played at all this week,” Davenport said. “When you play the week before a slam, you've got to be able to put it behind you and look forward.”

        Chela, Srichaphan advance to TD Waterhouse finale

        COMMACK, N.Y. — Juan Ignacio Chela and Paradorn Srichaphan advanced Saturday to the finale of the of T D Waterhouse tournament.

        Chela defeated Alex Corretja 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, and Srichaphan advanced on a walkover when defending champion Tommy Haas was unable to play.

        The victory was Chela's third straight over Corretja on hardcourt this year.

        “In the second set, he broke my service twice, but I wasn't concerned,” Chela said. “I'm really confident now going into the final, and I look forward to the U.S. Open.”

        Chela faces Felix Mantilla in the first round of the Open, which starts Monday.

        Corretja made 41 unforced errors.

        “I just felt I had a good chance to get into the final,” Corretja said.

        Haas has been bothered by tendinitis in his right shoulder, and in overcompensating for that injured his elbow and arm. He attempted to play, but tournament physician David Dines advised against it after watching Haas warm up.

        “He was unable to hold a racket, and there was no sense imposing any further damage that might have prevented him from competing in the U.S. Open,” Dines said.

        Haas reluctantly heeded Dines' advice.

        “It was very disappointing, but on the other hand, I'm happy with the tennis I played this week,” Haas said. “I fought through the injuries. Now, maybe the rest will help me for the Open.”


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