Tennis: Venus ascends as Kournikova wilts in sun

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The Independent Online
HAVING defeated Martina Hingis, the world No 1, for the second time in two months, Venus Williams out-lasted Anna Kournikova to win her first major WTA Tour title at the Lipton Championships here yesterday.

Unfortunately, the quality of what had promised to be a another intriguing examination of the skills of the tennis prodigies in their first match against each other deteriorated into a fitness battle on a hot, humid afternoon. Kournikova came off second best, appearing to suffer stomach cramps after performing like a champion for a set and three games in her first senior final.

Williams, her left knee bandaged, overcame a slight lack of mobility to win 2-6 6-4 6-1, receiving the crystal bowl trophy and a cheque for $235,000. Her father, Richard, seemed to be in training for a Pulitzer prize, scribbling messages on a board, which he held up during changeovers. The content ranged from a plug for the sponsor - "About now Venus needs Lipton tea" - just before Kournikova served for the opening set, to simple paternal encouragement - "Go Venus!" - as she was about to level the match.

Mr Williams, whose younger tennis-playing daughter, Serena, held two match points against Hingis in the quarter-finals, did not seem in danger of developing writers' cramp as the 16-year-old Kournikova hit a stream of winners to the lines and to the corners of the court.

The blonde Russian secured the first set after only 24 minutes and breaking for 2-1 in the second set. During that third game, Kournikova may have started to feel the pace, particularly after a 28-shot rally at 15-30, when she moved Williams from side to side, only to deliver a forehand long.

Not long after that, Kournikova's form lost its edge. She took a bathroom break at 2-3, and returned to discover that her opponent had taken control of the court. "I made too many unforced errors," Kournikova said. True, but she hit some great winners while her stamina lasted.

The outcome of today's men's singles final will either mark the coronation of the Chilean Marcelo Rios as the first world No 1 from Latin America or underpin Andre Agassi's comeback as a force in the game - a win-win situation.

Agassi, ranked No 141 at the turn of the year, has charged his way into the top 20 and promises that this is not as good as it gets. "I don't know why they're talking Rios and Sampras," the 27-year-old from Las Vegas told the Centre Court crowd after his semi-final victory against Alex Corretja, of Spain, 6-4, 6-2. "At the end of the year I'm going to be ranked No 1."

That would delight spectators and promoters alike, for Agassi's career has been in limbo since his 30 weeks at No 1 after overtaking his American compatriot Pete Sampras in April 1995.

An Agassi renaissance would not surprise any of his recent opponents, particularly Corretja. "He's kind of a genius in tennis," the world No 8 said. "He makes you feel bad on the court because it seems you cannot do anything else but run. He wanted to be at the top level again, and he can play really good at the top level.''

A touch of showmanship would not go amiss, either, as Agassi showed on the penultimate point on Friday night. He dashed to the net for a drop shot, then chased to the back of the court in pursuit of a lob, whirling in full flow to deliver a breathtaking forehand pass.

The crowd was ecstatic, and Agassi deservedly milked the situation, twirling and pointing with his index fingers to all sections of the stands, his smile beaming. He then converted the match point with a topspin lob, raised his arms to the roars of approval, and bowed three times like Pavarotti on song.

By this time, Tim Henman, the British No 2, was preparing to pack and return to London before heading for Newcastle to join Greg Rusedski for the Davis Cup tie against Ukraine, which starts on Friday. Like Rusedski at Indian Wells a fortnight earlier, Henman had performed with distinction until confronted by Rios' dazzling groundstrokes.

"He's not giving away any cheap points," Henman said. "I think that is making life difficult for his opponents. Anyone who says that Rios doesn't have a big weapon is wrong. It may not be the speed which he hits the ball with, which with other people you might associate as a weapon, but he's got a deceptive serve and a good all-round game. His unforced errors from the baseline are minimal.''

Nobody doubts that the 22-year-old left-hander from Santiago has an abundance of talent, but his temperament has been known to let him down on the big occasion. The question being asked this morning is two-fold - a) will Rios freeze under the Florida sun the way he did when playing Petr Korda in the Australian Open final in January? and b) even if his nerve holds, will he be able to out-rally a revitalised Agassi over the best of five sets?