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Embattled Venus Able to Ride Out the Storm

Women: She withstands eight match points and defeats Capriati for third Ericsson championship.


KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — One backhand sailed wide, a forehand clipped the net and bounced wide, two other backhands found the net, another backhand floated long, a powerful backhand passing shot just missed and lastly, and perhaps, fittingly, a second serve went long.

If you erase one of those mistakes by Jennifer Capriati in the latter stages of her Ericsson Open final Saturday against Venus Williams, she would have held the winner's trophy high above her head, thrilling her loyal fans.

But when those seven errors came on match point--and throw in a sharp volley from Williams on another--the missed opportunities became more than a nagging annoyance. They became an albatross, weighing down Capriati in the decisive tiebreaker.

Still, the erratic drama continued. Williams needed four match points to subdue Capriati, finally winning, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4), in 2 hours 24 minutes. It was her third title at this event and first of 2001.

"I got some lucky points and here I am," said Williams, who has an 18-match winning streak in this event.

Her 2001 breakthrough came after a tumultuous two weeks. Two Saturdays ago, she was booed at Indian Wells with uncharacteristic ferocity by spectators angered by her last-minute withdrawal because of injury before a semifinal match against her sister Serena.

Her father, Richard Williams, who was also jeered by the fans, then ignited a national debate when he charged that the booing was racially motivated. The allegations drew Venus and Serena into the controversy in the middle of this tournament.

Serena lost to Capriati in the quarterfinals. She was bothered by a pulled left thigh muscle but said she kept playing because of what happened at Indian Wells. And the sisters have been dealing with questions about match fixing, denying recent assertions made in a supermarket tabloid.

With that sort of backdrop, Venus appeared virtually untroubled by an overwhelmingly pro-Capriati crowd. If she could make her way through a chaotic off-court drama, then dealing with eight match points was something she could control--sort of.

"I think both Saturdays are exact opposites," Williams said. "That was two weeks ago in Indian Wells. It was a different crowd and I can't expect people to like me because I am a good person. They don't know that. They don't know me. And most of them will never have the opportunity to even meet me. So I have got to like myself.

"I was just able to hang in there through it all, through my tough matches, through any ridiculous comments or questions that I had to face and things move on. Time moves on, things pass."

Venus survived her own erratic performance--71 unforced errors and 11 double faults. Capriati helped too, with 16 double faults and 53 unforced errors.

The match was played under hot, humid and windy conditions. That, in part, contributed to 18 service breaks and it was not reflective of a contest between Capriati, the reigning Australian Open champion, and Williams, the Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion.

"Those match points didn't go my way," Capriati said. "It was just really close and nothing happened. I don't know what happened. I didn't have the luck. I missed a few shots by a little. It was all positive, being so close, I think I should have won the match."

Squandering three match points on her serve in the 10th game of the third set and five more in the 12th game, again on her serve, didn't crush Capriati's spirit the way it would have when she was a teen prodigy.

So much has happened to her from age 13 to 25, a narrow loss was hardly an earth-shattering event. Capriati was even pleased when one reporter described her as a "warrior."

"I love the challenge and the competitiveness and it was such a tough match out there today, but I enjoy that," she said. "I thrive on that. It guess it will be cool to think of myself as a warrior. . . . I have to think of a name or something."

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