Tennis: US Open - Hingis takes on a family challenge

World No 1's rehabilitation virtually complete as she breaks Williams final monopoly

MAYBE Richard Williams, father of the famous sisters, knew something the rest of the audience didn't when he walked out in the middle of the second set of his daughter Venus's semi-final against Martina Hingis at the US Open on Friday night.

Having been overrun in the first set, Venus was mounting a commendable fightback when dad pushed off to his Manhattan hotel. By then her sister Serena was already in the final and for a long time, until her serving rhythm and stamina deserted her, Venus looked a good bet to join her, just as Richard Williams had been predicting throughout the tournament. But it was Hingis who had the last word, winning 6-1 4-6 6-3, a two-hour feast of hitting and skill which was the best contest the US Open has seen this year.

"Venus Warns Martina" thundered the headline in the Daily News a couple of days ago. There has been a lot of that sort of stuff but, as Hingis said as she anticipated one more contest en route to the championship, "With talking, I can't beat them. I know that. So I have to try to beat them on court."

She did that in some style, assisted enormously by Venus's horrendous count of 60 unforced errors and 11 double faults, as she clocked up her eighth win in their 11 meetings. The shot of the fortnight was struck by the Swiss 18-year-old. Not renowned for her speed about the court, Hingis ran down a ball which had only just cleared the net and, forgoing her normal double-handed backhand style, whipped it one-handed around the netpost and into the deepest corner of Williams' court to take her to match point.

"I was running, like boom, boom, boom, one step after the other," said Hingis. "I didn't believe I was going to get to it. It was unbelievable, I was so lucky." By then Venus had already undergone treatment for cramp in both thighs and the Hingis victory needed only her signature. But if she had not already been down and out, Venus would have been poleaxed by that incredible shot.

While conceding she had been "lucky", Hingis made a point of qualifying that comment: "I think luck is always on the side of the better player at that moment."

Asked about her own good or bad fortune, Venus said, "I don't believe in luck. If it all came down to luck I would lie in bed every morning and not get up and practise. It wasn't luck that won Martina the match, but everyone has the right to believe what they want. Everything that comes, comes for a reason. That reason is hard work or something else. I don't believe things just happen because the wind blows and luck just lands on you."

For Hingis, the rehabilitation is virtually complete after the horrors of her tantrum in the final of the French Open and the nightmare first- round exit at Wimbledon when she opted to play without the presence of her mother, Melanie Molitor. The beam on mother Molitor's face matched Martina's as Venus's final error, a backhand service return, sailed long. Now there was only the muscled bulk of Serena, at 17 the younger of the girls, blocking her path towards a second US Open crown.

Hingis has worked as assiduously at reinstalling herself in the hearts of tennis followers as she has at improving her fitness. As the Williams girls loomed ever larger in her thinking, it became clear that mere shot- making would not be enough against opponents who could run all day and wallop the ball harder than anybody else in women's tennis. So she has been devoting time to her own fitness campaign and paid tribute to the woman she was named after, Martina Navratilova. "Martina said anybody can get in good shape."

That she has done so was clear under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium as Venus Williams limped off to the locker-room and Hingis did a small lap of honour, waving and grinning.

Hingis had looked all business from the moment she walked on court, and when she surged through the opening set in 24 minutes, John McEnroe ventured the opinion from his TV commentary box that Venus had been hit by a Swiss truck.

But such stompings only serve to fire the determination of both Williams girls and, in a contest in which serve was broken 15 times, the Venus counter-attack cost Hingis her first dropped set of the tournament. With a 3-2 service-break lead in the final set Venus was in with a great chance of fulfilling her absent father's prediction of an all-Williams final, but by then she was labouring.

The toll this marvellous match had taken was most evident in her serving, normally the bedrock of her game. Her ball toss and swing had disintegrated and one double fault was so horrendous that both serves bounced on her side of the court before landing in the net.

The Williams girls had shattered the mould of women's tennis back in March when they contested the final of the Key Biscayne tournament, Venus winning in three sets. But if such success has gone to their heads it certainly doesn't show. When Serena had completed her demolition job on the defending champion, Lindsay Davenport, in the other semi-final, 6- 4 1-6 6-4, she ran into Venus on her way back to the locker-room. Did they hug, kiss or high-five? Did they speak? "Yeah," said Serena. "She asked me for her hairbrush because I had it."

Father Williams has long claimed that Serena will become the better player of his daughters. Certainly she has the right attitude, admirably combined with a frankness and sense of humour. Having recovered from a third-set deficit of 3-5 to defeat Kim Clijsters in the third round, Serena opined, "I was almost out of this tournament that day. But I didn't want that. I came here with the goal to do very well. I didn't come to lose in the third round. I was determined to get through."

Well, she has done that, gatecrashing her first Grand Slam final. At least Hingis knew what she was up against. "Another one," she grinned with a lift of the eyebrows. "I was so far never able to beat both of them at the same tournament. But, hopefully, there is always a first time."

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