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TENNIS LISA DILLMAN

Another All-New Episode of Serena

April 02, 2002|LISA DILLMAN

The stories about the new Serena Williams--or is that the new, new Serena Williams?--are starting to sound a lot like the ones about Andre Agassi in his early days, the ones everyone has been so used to hearing, about reinvention.

He's more serious. She's more serious.

He's mentally tougher. She's mentally tougher.

He changed his hair again. She changed her hair again.

He's getting stronger. She's getting stronger.

Which makes it somewhat fitting that Agassi and Williams walked away from Miami as the biggest winners. Williams beat Jennifer Capriati on Saturday in the final, fighting off seven set points in the second set. On Sunday, Agassi beat Roger Federer of Switzerland in the men's final and, more important, tied wife Steffi Graf with his fifth title in Miami. "I'm moving up in the household," Agassi said.

Much had been made about another household rivalry, that of Serena and her older sister, Venus. In the semifinals, Serena dispatched Venus, 6-2, 6-2, only her second victory in their seven matches. More about the quirky nature of those matches later.

What can be said about Serena's newfound mental toughness is that it was created after a particularly low moment in August. In an electric, almost boisterous night match, Serena lost to Monica Seles in the quarterfinals at Manhattan Beach after holding six match points. In fact, Williams served for the match in the third set at 5-3, 40-0 and still managed to lose.

Since then, Serena has lost only one of the last 24 matches she has completed--the US. Open final against Venus. On that record is a January loss in Sydney where she suffered torn ligaments in her right ankle and retired against Meghann Shaughnessy, keeping her out of the Australian Open.

The last time Serena went on such a run was in 1999. A 16-match, two-tournament winning streak--stopped by Venus in the Miami final--started after another shaky mental performance, when Serena squandered two match points against Sandrine Testud of France in the third round of the Australian Open and lost.

She went on to win her next two events, in Paris and Indian Wells, and declared in California: "I don't lose those type of matches anymore, if I'm ahead."

Months later, Serena won the first family Grand Slam, taking the U.S. Open in September at age 17, and beating Venus for the first time at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich, Germany, the next month.

But instead of moving smoothly ahead, Serena inexplicably slipped back, and the aura of dominance was erased at the Australian Open in 2000. She arrived with no match-play preparation and lost in the fourth round, and because of injuries and lackluster play, Serena was firmly back in the role of little sister by the end of the year.

Fast-forward to last week.

Buried in the hyped excitement of Serena's win over Venus in Miami was the fact that they have yet to produce something close to a compelling match. Frankly, even half the competitiveness of Seles vs. Capriati would have been refreshing.

The fans in Miami reacted accordingly, booing and whistling late in the match. John Parsons of London's Daily Telegraph wrote:

"Some in the crowd, in view of the controversy which has surrounded earlier matches between them, were not convinced that Venus was putting in maximum effort. Yet anyone who had watched the sisters in previous rounds would not have been surprised at the outcome, or the one-sided manner in which the match unfolded."

Darryl Richards of Foxsports.com interviewed one woman who had come to Miami from St. Louis to watch the Williamses. The woman noted that Venus didn't seem to hustle after every shot and lacked passion. Although Venus was erratic in her previous match against Elena Dementieva, she got down to business when necessary.

"The questions and doubts about the veracity of a match involving the Williams sisters will not go away anytime soon," Richards wrote. "Until the sisters play some compelling matches that go beyond the novelty, their matches will be viewed with some skepticism."

What needs to happen is a semi-competitive match between Venus and Serena, to turn it into sport, not a sideshow.

If it should happen in a Grand Slam tournament, so much the better for everyone involved. But we'll take anything, anywhere from Rome to Palo Alto to New Haven, Conn.

Guga Watch

Three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil is set to resume practicing Wednesday, according to his representatives. Kuerten had surgery on his right hip five weeks ago and has received permission from his doctor to start hitting.

"We worked hard during the past weeks and now the good time has arrived, the time to play again," Kuerten said. "I wanted to go back feeling good in every aspect."

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The Times' Rankings

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