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Now Venus Runs Into Hingis

Tennis: Williams bumps into Spirlea during changeover and brings tensions to surface.

September 06, 1997|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Months of ill will that had been simmering on the women's tennis tour bubbled to the surface Friday in the form of a bizarre chest-butting incident between Irina Spirlea and Venus Williams during their U.S. Open semifinal, which Williams won.

It occurred after Williams held serve and was up a break at 4-3 in the second set. The players walked to the sideline for the changeover and neither gave way while negotiating the narrow space between the end of the net and the umpire's chair.

The players collided, recoiled, and kept walking. Williams sat down with no expression. Spirlea, who acknowledged that she planned not to give way to Williams on the changeover, sat down and smiled.

The Romanian was hardly amused later when asked about the incident. Spirlea said Williams had been consistently violating the delicate etiquette that governs which player yields for the other when they pass at the net.

Williams, Spirlea said, refused to move aside at all during previous changeovers, in what she understood to be a form of gamesmanship from the 17-year-old.

Spirlea, 23, is not a player who is easily intimidated. She said the collision occurred when she decided to stand her ground.

"I'm not going to move," Spirlea said angrily. "I mean, she's never trying to turn or whatever. She thinks she's '[f------] Venus Williams'; she's not going to turn. I was like, 'Let's see if she's turning.' She didn't, so . . ."

Spirlea won the second set before losing in the third-set tiebreaker.

Williams acted as if the incident were minor, even though by the time she met with print reporters after the match she had been asked about it repeatedly by television reporters. "Well, I mean, I'm not having injuries from that bump," she said, laughing. "I think we just both weren't looking. It's not really a big thing to me."

It was an emotional day for the intense Spirlea. She already had made an obscene gesture to photographers after she lost the first set.

Friday's animosity has been brewing since the beginning of the year and is not entirely about Williams. Many players have been quietly seething that a succession of teenagers have been hogging the headlines.

Jealousy, the professional protocol of "rookies" and the natural abrasion of life on the tour have left many veteran players irritable.

It began when Martina Hingis turned pro after laying waste to the junior circuit. At 16, she won the Australian Open in January, won Wimbledon and has lost only two matches the entire year. The attention paid Hingis has rankled many, but the players reason that as the current No. 1, she deserves it.

Not so for 16-year-old Russian Anna Kournikova, whose credentials for media scrutiny appear to be solidly grounded in her striking good looks, her scanty tennis outfits and her tabloid personal life.

Mirjana Lucic of Croatia is only 15 and already has been called the next Steffi Graf--before she entered her first Grand Slam tournament. She lost in the third round here.

Williams, ranked No. 66, has been a different case. She has been cited for not being friendly, for being aloof in the locker room and during matches, for excess bragging given her lean accomplishments during the year.

That Spirlea would be the spokeswoman for that point of view is no surprise. She was the recipient of the Women's Tennis Assn. Tour's largest fine ever, a $20,000 penalty levied after she swore at a chair umpire at a tournament in Palermo, Sicily. Spirlea speaks fluent Italian.

A WTA attorney said Spirlea's postmatch comments would be discussed at the next players' meeting and she could be fined under the group's Code of Conduct rule.

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