Tennis: Hingis rockets towards Venus

US Open: Long-awaited clash of the starlets as a new generation conquers New York
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The Independent Online
Martina Hingis today sets her sights on her first United States Open title, taking on Venus Williams in the final of a tournament which has been dominated by milestones and generational shifts.

Such is the 16-year-old Swiss player's dominance this year - she has lost just twice in 64 matches - that it is difficult to believe this is her first Flushing Meadow final. A year ago she was just making the breakthrough into the world's top five, beating Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the fourth round and pushing Steffi Graf hard in the semi-finals. Yet few could have envisaged the way she has mastered the women's tour, reaching all four Grand Slam finals.

While she can be a little crabby in the heat of competition, Hingis is a delight off the court, and despite the world media's hunger for her, she still maintains a spirited naivete. Asked after her 71-minute, 6-2 6-4 semi-final victory over the No 6 seed, Lindsay Davenport, what was the most pleasing aspect about winning so many matches, she replied: "The best feeling you can have out there is knowing no one is better than you are. You feel you can just beat everyone in the world; you're the best in what you can do. The money is not bad of course - you can just go into a shop and if you like something you can buy it."

There is little to suggest that Williams, who at 17 is three months older than Hingis, has anything that could hurt the world No 1 in the final - there are few similarities with the two defeats Hingis has suffered this year (when too much tennis was the most identifiable factor), and Hingis has never lost to Williams in their three meetings.

More to the point, the jubilation Williams showed after her two-hour 42-minute epic semi-final against Irina Spirlea on Friday suggests she is already satisfied with her achievement in reaching her first Grand Slam final in only her 54th professional match. Williams said: "I wouldn't be angry if I didn't win, but I'm not going to go out there and be afraid, because fear holds you back. I won't let it happen."

Williams's triumph is an admirable one and a major weapon in the campaign to boost tennis in the poorer urban areas in America. She came into the US Open with plenty of people admiring her talent but few having seen much evidence that she could turn it into meaningful results. She has answered those critics with conviction.

Yet she does not please everyone. Post-match news conferences at the US Open have been peppered with players saying Williams, her mother Brandi and 15-year-old tennis-playing sister Serena are aloof, and that when players attempt to say hello they are frozen out. Brandi Williams answered that particular charge by suggesting in a column in the New York Times that her daughters were the victims of racism.

The widening gap between Williams and her tour colleagues was evident in her dramatic 7-6 4-6 7-6 victory over Spirlea, in which she saved two match points. Courtesy has it that one player stands aside for the other at changes of ends - after standing aside for the first set and a half, Spirlea tried to go first at 4-3 in the second, only to be barged out of the way by the unstoppable Williams.

The move could have proved tactically unsound for the American, as the Romanian, who had just lost three straight games, galvanised herself into winning the next three and taking the match into a final set. Williams, clearly not amused by the turn events were taking, ignored another courtesy by declining to show Spirlea the new balls early in the third set.

Spirlea later referred to her opponent in a disparaging manner. Williams's only comment was "It's not really a big thing to me, I didn't have any injuries from that bump." And that probably gives an insight into the priorities of Venus. Before this tournament began, Venus and Serena were out in the poorer New York suburb of Harlem promoting tennis among young black kids on a makeshift court rigged up in front of a municipal administration building. If tennis is to be promoted beyond its traditional middle-class roots, traditional courtesies may inevitably get left behind.

Regardless of today's result, Williams has clearly added a new dimension to the sport, whether the traditionalists will like it or not. Her form of tennis continues the trend towards hard-hitting baseline rallies, and those followers who enjoy the subtlety of net approaches and delicate drop shots will not relish her progress.

But this is what women's tennis in the 1990s is, and while Hingis will probably beat Williams in a one-sided final, the changing of the guard in has without doubt taken another significant step.