Tennis: US Open - Serena slams home the message

Younger Williams sister first to the final breakthrough as she tames revitalised Hingis
ONE WILLIAMS girl is tough enough. Two are simply too much, as Martina Hingis discovered in the final of the US Open at Flushing Meadows here last night.

Drained by the physical demands of repelling Venus Williams 6-1 4-6 6- 3 in a pulsating semi-final, Hingis was on court again 20 hours later to face Venus's "baby" sister, the massively muscled 17-year-old Serena, and she was not up to the task. Serena won 6-3 7-6 to become the first black American woman to capture a Grand Slam since Althea Gibson won the US title in 1958, 41 years ago.

The glory went to Serena, who mixed the brilliant with the banal in a display of fireworks which produced 36 winners and 56 unforced errors. But surely the family will offer a portion of the credit to sister Venus, whose gutsy display in Friday night's semi-final siphoned the starch from the 18-year-old Swiss girl's normally tight and controlled game.

Serena, who has not lost a match since back in May, partially because she has not played that much, was on a 12-match winning streak going into the final, and she treated the sell-out crowd of 22,500 to an incredible display of raw power, with serves regularly being pounded down at speeds only marginally short of 120mph. Her immediate rewards are that she will pocket a cheque for pounds 500,000 and will rise to fourth on Monday when the new rankings are released.

The head of the Williams family, Richard, had forecast that his daughters would contest the final, just as they had done at the Lipton event last March. He was only 50 per cent right, but who was worrying in the aftermath of this sensational result? This was the third time Hingis had beaten one Williams girl but lost to the other. At the 1998 Lipton, she beat Serena in the third round but lost to Venus in the semi-finals. In May this year, at the Italian Open, Martina defeated Serena in the quarter- finals only to fall to Venus again in the semis.

Hingis has for some time experienced difficulty in containing the sheer venom of Serena's hitting and it happened again yesterday. She dropped serve the first time she stepped up to the line and rapidly found herself trailing 3-0. Even so, the world No 1 was creating break points on the Williams serve, thanks mainly to Serena's wildness and inconsistency.

Hingis got back to 3-4 with a break of serve when Williams put a backhand wide, as she was to do on so many occasions in the next hour and a half. But at once Hingis was broken again by a stunning backhand down the line and Serena served out, rather shakily, for the first set in 37 minutes, missing one set point but reaching a second with her seventh ace of the match before her opponent dumped a backhand service return into the net.

As her parents and sister watched impassively from the VIP box Serena then set about completing the second half of her task. By now, however, Hingis was beginning to find her feet, moving better to the ball and offering much more than the token resistance of the opening set. They shared the first four games but then, to a sustained roar of support, Williams smashed through the Hingis defences once more to break serve with two shots of the highest quality, a searing backhand down the line followed by a carbon copy off the forehand wing.

At once Hingis battled back and levelled the set, thanks to more errors from the Williams backhand. But in this exhausting and unforgettable clash Serena took a 4-3 lead with a crunching backhand winner. Surely it was curtains for the Swiss girl? Williams served out for a 5-3 lead and as Hingis battled bravely to stay alive, Serena got to match point with a marvellous forehand cross-court winner, only to put a backhand wide. Up came match point number two but Serena trundled one of those fallible backhands into the net.

Now, spotting a glimpse of light, Hingis rallied as only a true champion can. She spotted that Serena had run herself virtually into the ground and launched her own attack, levelling the set at 5-5 and winning eight straight points. That was Serena's low point and it seemed that, if the contest had gone to a third set, Hingis would still prevail somehow.

But as the two girls battled towards the climax of the match it proved too much for Richard Williams, who left briefly. In his absence his daughter saved a set point before extending the set into a tie-break by running down a rare Hingis volley to poke a backhand winner into the empty court.

Serena had rediscovered her serving zest by now and when she led the tie-break by six points to four she had two more points for the championship. She needed only one, as Hingis floated a backhand beyond the baseline. "My God," mouthed Serena, before being hauled up from courtside into the family box for thoroughly merited congratulations.

The Williams girls had shattered the mould of women's tennis when they contested the final of the Key Biscayne tournament in March, Venus winning in three sets. But if this and the new success have gone to their heads, it doesn't show. When Serena had completed her demolition job on the defending champion Lindsay Davenport in the 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. Having recovered from a 3-5 third-set deficit 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 of doing very well, I didn't want to lose in the third round. I was really determined to get through."

This she did in simply brilliant fashion yesterday. Sportingly, Hingis congratulated the new champion on winning her first title. "It was a great match but oh, those serves," she said. "I am defintely looking for revenge next year."