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Now Venus Runs Into Hingis

U.S. Open: Williams brushes aside Spirlea and will meet No. 1 player in women's final.


NEW YORK — Tennis fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium had settled in for what most considered would be the lesser match at Friday's U.S. Open, between 11th-seeded Irina Spirlea of Romania and unseeded Venus Williams of Florida.

They were still bathed in the afterglow of a well-fought and sporting semifinal in which top-seeded Martina Hingis defeated sixth-seeded Lindsay Davenport and watched as the two mild-mannered top-10 players hugged and laughed as they left the court on a sunny and cool afternoon.

It turned out the first match was the undercard.

The second was a heavyweight slugfest that was animated by personal animosity and ulcer-inducing points. Williams, 17, maintained her exceptional poise and outlasted Spirlea, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (9-7), in a match that took 2 hours 42 minutes and brought "full-contact" into the lexicon of tennis.

Hingis, of Switzerland, defeated Davenport, 6-2, 6-4, and will play Williams in Sunday's final. Williams, ranked No. 66, is the first unseeded woman to reach the U.S. Open final.

The matchup between Hingis, 16, and Williams makes them the youngest Grand Slam finalists in the open era.

Any residue of gentility was erased after the raucous second match. Williams has been the object of much criticism from her fellow players for what is perceived as intimidating behavior and excessive bragging. Spirlea was a perfect foil in Friday's match because of her own history as a volatile and often brash player.

The two literally clashed during a second-set changeover with Williams leading, 4-3. Spirlea planted herself in Williams' path and the two collided as they walked to their chairs. Spirlea said she was retaliating for Williams' breach of protocol in failing to give ground as the two players walked past each other during changeovers.

Williams has been unnerving opponents since the tournament began. At 6 feet 2, with a big serve and the ability to move well, Williams has grown during this tournament from a raw, untested player to a newcomer suddenly challenging the veterans.

There were indications Friday of her youth and inexperience, but few. During changeovers, Williams consulted crib notes, handwritten reminders to bend her knees and concentrate.

Williams and Spirlea, 23, went toe to toe the entire match, trading powerful ground strokes and in-your-face drop shots. Williams was the more powerful, Spirlea the more crafty. In fact, the Romanian won more points than Williams, but the teenager was more efficient in controlling her unforced errors.

Williams was broken first, in the sixth game of the first set, but broke back in the next game and showed her mettle by fending off a set point while serving in the 12th game.

Williams took a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker but errors and a double fault allowed Spirlea to come within one, at 4-3. Williams kept her cool and won the tiebreaker and the set.

Spirlea's irritation at the changeover crowding may have been exacerbated by the unraveling of her own game. Her decision-making was murky and her insistence on trying drop shots against the speedy Williams caused endless trouble.

It was a strange tactic, given Williams' loud pronouncement earlier in the week that no one should dare drop shot against her.

"She must not have heard me say it, I guess," Williams said. "I'm going to get to the drop shot, that's all there is to it. I love people that hit drop shots on me."

Spirlea benefited from Williams' second-set lapse and broke twice to take the set.

Williams said she began to have negative thoughts about going home and not making it to the final and didn't right herself until a self-inflicted pep talk.

Keeping in mind that her primary coach--her father--has not been present during the tournament, Williams' poise was remarkable. Her father, Richard, has chosen to remain at home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., while her mother and sister have accompanied her here.

They were among those cheering her on in the tense third set. Williams weathered a tumultuous third game in which she double-faulted three times and faced four break points. She broke Spirlea in the eighth game but was broken in the next as she was serving for the match.

The tiebreaker was tight. Spirlea managed to work up two match points, which Williams negated. The teenager had her own match point that Spirlea erased. On her second match point, Williams converted.

Williams hopped to the net in joy and screamed, "I won, I won," as if to convince herself.

Before this tournament, Williams has existed in tennis mostly as a question mark. Her performance here has clearly changed that. Exposure, and allowing fans to see her game, has won her converts.

"In the past, I really didn't worry about what other people thought because it was important what I thought, what my family thought," she said. "There's a lot of myths floating around. I knew one day people would see. It would just be a little bit of time; I hadn't played that much. So, I guess this is a great tournament for me. Maybe a fraction of the talk will stop."

* MIKE DOWNEY: The name Venus could become to tennis what the name Tiger is to golf. A1


Planting Seeds of Notice

Unseeded women to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open. None have gone on to win the championship (x-advanced to final):

1971: Chris Evert

1974: Julie Heldman

1976: Mima Jausovec

1997: Venus Williams-x

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