Bewitching Williamses, artless Agassi

THE INCREDIBLE Williams sisters are certain to provide a rousing farewell this afternoon to the Compaq Grand Slam Cup in Munich as theAmerican computer company decide that 10 years of throwing record sums of money at tennis players is enough. But before the gravy train runs intothe buffers Venus and Serena will help themselves to just over £800,000 as the finalists in the women's event, a nice little bundle to take hometo Florida for their father, Richard, the man who launched them so artfully on to the world scene.

THE INCREDIBLE Williams sisters are certain to provide a rousing farewell this afternoon to the Compaq Grand Slam Cup in Munich as theAmerican computer company decide that 10 years of throwing record sums of money at tennis players is enough. But before the gravy train runs intothe buffers Venus and Serena will help themselves to just over £800,000 as the finalists in the women's event, a nice little bundle to take hometo Florida for their father, Richard, the man who launched them so artfully on to the world scene.

The vast indoor hall at the Olympic Stadium, Munich, home to the 1972 Games, today stages its final session of tennis. Already the date for 2000 hasbeen allocated to the world karate championships. But, the organisers insist, the Grand Slam Cup will go on, certainly in another city and, they hope,with a new title sponsor. The head honchos of the four Grand Slam championships are gathered here and an announcement is due today about thetournament's future, albeit possibly of a holding nature.

The event has been lambasted since its inception in 1990 for prize money that John McEnroe called "obscene" (though that didn't stop himcompeting in 1992) and also regularly derided as a glorified exhibition because it does not offer ranking points. What the detractors overlook is thatthe public at large neither knows nor cares whether a tournament is pukka or not, just so long as the top names turn up; and it is in this area that theGrand Slam Cup has struggled recently, with players either declining the place for which they have qualified or, in some cynical instances, collectingthe money before ducking out with an early defeat.

The biggest ticket seller for this year's tournament, Andre Agassi, looked very much as if he might fit into this latter category. Jetting into Munich ona tidal wave of speculation about his romance with Steffi Graf, surely the most bizarre pairing in recent sporting history, Agassi seemed to be tanking(tennis-speak for not trying) when he lost the first set against Tommy Haas in 17 minutes. Subsequently he tried harder, or possibly disguised hiscommitment more skilfully, and lost in three sets before departing to the Oktoberfest with his buddy Boris Becker, where they took a beer or two inthe Kafer tent, a VIP area which sniffs that "guests are hand- picked". Of Steffi there was no sign.

Agassi and Graf had arrived together from America last Monday but she promptly peeled off to Vienna and then home to Heidelberg. Having beenbombarded with reports via US television that the two French Open champions of 1999 were planning marriage and children, the German media(tabloid branch) renamed the event the Grand Love Cup but such salivation dried up after Andre's poker-faced press conference following the Haasdefeat. It was such straight-bat, back-foot stuff that a Munich newspaper offered the woeful headline "No Kissing, No Marriage, No Children".

So thank heavens, then, for the Williams girls, sashaying around with their high-octane tennis and outrageous comments. One of the most damningfailures of the Grand Slam Cup was that for eight years it declined to let women participate, against all logic. When the barricades were lowered lastyear Venus Williams loped through to make off with prize money in excess of half a million pounds. Now she and her "baby" sister, the mighty-muscled Serena, have put the opposition to the sword. The world No 1, Martina Hingis, and the Wimbledon champion, Lindsay Davenport, weredispatched in Friday's semi-finals and, for the fourth time in their short careers, Venus and Serena will play each other. Venus has won all three sofar, in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open 7-6 6-1, the quarter-finals of the 1998 Italian Open 6-4 6-2 and the final of Key Biscayne inMarch this year 6-1 4-6 6-4.

Richard Williams juggles his daughters' playing commitments so skilfully that collision possibilities are avoided, except in the biggest and richestevents like this one, but now may well be the time for Serena, the new US Open champion, to clock up the first professional win over Venus. Aftercrunching Davenport 6-3 6-4 on Friday night Serena revealed that Venus is good-naturedly envious of that victory in New York. "She says thingslike 'Good morning, US Open champ' or 'That's no way to treat the US Open champ'.

"Playing Venus in the final isn't too much of a problem because family is what comes first in life. I don't want to have a family feud just because weplay each other a few times. And I would rather play Venus because then we get the maximum amount of everything. It's also exciting. I would preferto play her in the big matches because that's what we dreamed of, being in the finals of tournaments like Wimbledon and the US Open."

This week Serena will play a tournament in Filderstadt before hurrying home to start a term of schooling in fashion design and psychology. "I justtalked to the school. They told me I needed to be there by nine o'clock on the Monday morning. Unless I lose early I might not make it."

For a girl who says "sometimes I feel I'm invincible", losing early in an event like Filderstadt would not appear to be an option. School may have towait a few hours. For the Grand Slam Cup, the search for a multi- dollar sponsor may take a little longer.

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