Tennis: Williams' title ushers in new era

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THE summer is set fair for women's tennis, judging by the maturing skills and tactical awareness of the teenage prodigies. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have served notice that Martina Hingis's reign as the world No 1 is under threat, and Anna Kournikova has blossomed as a major talent.

In winning the women's singles title at the Lipton Championships here, Venus Williams defeated Hingis in the semi-finals - her second victory of the year against the Wimbledon, United States Open and Australian Open champion - and won her first match against Kournikova in the final, 2- 6, 6-4, 6-1.

The 16-year-old Kournikova, who played beautifully until fatigue took a toll in the second set on Saturday, eliminated four top 10 opponents, Monica Seles, Conchita Martinez, Lindsay Davenport and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to reach the final.

"I've played all the younger girls," the 17-year-old Venus said, "including one girl named Serena Williams. They all have their different games and the different things they play. It's a good sign for the future, because if it hadn't been me in the finals, it would have been Martina, or it would have been Serena. So it was going to be a teenage final, especially with Anna pulling her end in the bottom draw. I think it was good. Everyone was exposed to the new girls."

Kournikova, a Wimbledon semi-finalist on her debut at the All England Club last year, has added variation to her game under the tutelage of Pavel Slozil, Steffi Graf's former coach, and her use of the sliced backhand, a Graf preference, is particularly effective.

One of the few drawbacks of youthful energy, if memory serves, is the lack of concern for conservation. Such is the pace of the game nowadays that over-eager youngsters tend to expend more than they realise during the the course of a match, let alone a tournament and a season.

Kournikova and Williams both showed signs of wear and weariness on Saturday. Williams, whose bandage on her left knee grew larger with every twinge of tendinitis during the concluding days of the tournament, probably left a good deal of physical and mental strength on the court after defeating Hingis on Thursday. Kournikova began to show signs of distress shortly before breaking serve for 2-1 in the second set, using her racket as a support rather than a weapon, doubling up and resting her head on the heel like a sick old woman with a walking stick.

Her winners were swiftly overtaken by errors - 53 of them - the magnificence of her play in the opening set appearing to belong to some distant performance.

"I just got a little bit tired physically and made all the mistakes," Kournikova said. "She didn't really beat me, I lost. That means I'm a little bit better than her."

Having committed that final error in the interview room, Kournikova was given an opportunity to correct it. Was she saying that she is a better player than Williams? "I didn't say that, I'm just saying that it shows me that I can play better than I did today."

Williams acknowledged that "usually when people lose, they beat themselves gener-ally". She praised Kournikova for her victories over Seles, Martinez, Davenport and Sanchez Vicario, adding that "sometimes people get on fire and you have to extinguish that, no matter who they are".