Tennis: Venus looks to win the public's love

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The Independent Online
VENUS WILLIAMS'S face covers the side of a building close to the Queensboro Bridge, although it is debatable whether the 18-year-old is quite so big with the tennis public.

Judging by the muted support the Californian has received during some of her matches at the United States Open, there would appear to be mixed feelings.

Today, Williams will try reach the women's singles final for a second consecutive year. Twelve months ago, when out-played by Martina Hingis, she was the first unseeded women's finalist since 1958. This time, seeded No 5, Williams faces Lindsay Davenport, the No 2 seed. Both have an opportunity to become the first American-born champion since 1982, when Chris Evert defeated Hana Mandlikova.

Whoever wins today's semi-final has the difficult task of playing Hingis or Jana Novotna, the Wimbledon champion. If Hingis reaches the final, she will continue to reign as No. 1 for a 77th consecutive week. Otherwise, Novotna will supplant the 18-year-old Swiss, unless she loses to Davenport in tomorrow's final.

Williams and Davenport are both tall and imposing. Davenport possibly has the greater power, Williams is the more athletic. It will be interesting to see how the crowd responds to their endeavours, especially since Mary Pierce, of France, and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, of Spain, had reason to feel more at home at times in their matches against Williams.

"I felt that they wanted Mary to win," Williams said. "That's fine. People have to make up their own mind. They have to have their favourite players. I can't change their hearts. Mary's been playing here longer than I have. She's been a pro longer. People probably understand her more. I don't know."

The irony of the situation will not have escaped the Canadian-born Pierce, who was jeered and whistled off the court after losing in the second round of the French Open in June.

Williams gave a similar answer concerning the crowd's support of Sanchez- Vicario, a winner of the US Open in 1994, on Wednesday night. "I'm still a new player on the tour," Williams said, having defeated the Spaniard handsomely, 2-6, 6-1, 6-1, "Everyone has to make up their mind who they want to root for. I have to make up my mind how I'm going to play in the matches."

The reason perhaps goes deeper than the popularity of Pierce and Sanchez- Vicario. Venus and her younger sister, Serena, both hugely talented, sometimes give the impression of being arrogant, on the court and off it. Their father, Richard Williams, is given to making pointed remarks, and Venus and Serena are not shy with their comments.

Naivety might play a part of some of the things the daughters say, but Venus may have come close to the mark after being asked if she thought she could have excelled in any sport. "I think so," she said. "But tennis is the best because you have the opportunity to have a large income, you travel the world. I think it's the best women's sport as far as notoriety."

The Reebok poster in Manhattan is an indication of Venus Williams's commercial value, which runs into millions of dollars. She has also won $1.2m (pounds 700,000) in prize-money since making her professional debut against Sanchez-Vicario in Oakland, California, in 1994.

It is a pity that Venus neglected to add, "and I love the game", to her assessment of the sport's worth, because she obviously does. It is evident in her matches, along with the beaded hair, clinging dresses and cocky demeanour.

This week marks the 41st anniversay of Althea Gibson's triumph as the first African- American to win a United States championship. A television documentary has been made of Gibson's life, and an Althea Gibson Foundation has been established by friends of hers, designed to help players from inner cities.

"I couldn't say I know everything about Althea Gibson," Venus said, "but definitely she did more than I could have done or what I have done. To emulate her success would be great."

Pat Rafter, the defending men's singles champion, and Pete Sampras, the world No 1, are due to meet in the semi- finals tomorrow. Sampras, who is trying to match Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam titles, avenged his defeat by Karol Kucera at the Australian Open in January, defeating the Slovakian in the quarter-finals on Wednesday night, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.

Sampras, beaten by Rafter in Cincinnati last month, was furious about a line call on match point, which was given as an ace in the Australian's favour.

"Don't worry, I won't lose my control on Saturday," Sampras promised. "Having the match in my hands, letting it slip away, and then getting a tough line call, I just lost my temper with the umpire for a minute."

Carlos Moya, the French Open champion, advanced to the semi-finals, defeating the unseeded Magnus Larsson, of Sweden 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

HEAD TO HEAD

PETE SAMPRAS v PAT RAFTER

Sampras leads 8-2

93 Indianapolis (hard) quarter-finals, Rafter won 7-6 6-7 7-6

94 Tokyo (hard) QF, Sampras 6-1 5-7 6-1

95 Indian Wells (hard) R16, Sampras 6-4 6-7 6-1

96 Hong Kong (hard) R16, Sampras 6-3 7-6

97 Philadelphia (hard) F, Sampras 5-7 7-6 6-3

97 Cincinnati (hard) R16, Sampras 7-6 6-4

97 Davis Cup (hard) R4, Sampras 6-7 6-1 6-1 6-4

97 Grand Slam Cup (carpet) F, Sampras 6-2 6-4 7-5

97 ATP Finals (hard) RR, Sampras 6-4 6-1

98 Cincinnati (hard) F, Rafter 1-6 7-6 6-4

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