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There's Sisterhood at the Top

Tennis: Venus, Serena Williams reach final at French Open and will be 1-2 when rankings are released Monday.


PARIS — Inevitability was one thing.

What made Thursday's tennis history lesson so compelling--for the first time, sisters Venus and Serena Williams will be ranked No. 1 and No. 2--had more to do with location.

In the beginning, location made it special. As has been often recorded, they learned to play in Compton, and their quirky father Richard predicted years ago that his daughters would become No. 1 and No. 2. Everyone else could play for No. 3.

In the end, location made it even better. Venus, 21, and Serena, 20, completed the ascent in Paris, on what was once arguably their most troublesome court surface, red clay. The uncertain footing and the slow surface, which blunted their power, once created nightmarish results for them at the French Open.

For Venus, there were losses to Barbara Schwartz and Barbara Schett. For Serena, there were close calls, three-set defeats against Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Mary Joe Fernandez.

Clay was tamed, finally and emphatically, in the semifinals Thursday. First, third-seeded Serena defeated top-seeded defending champion Jennifer Capriati, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2, in 2 hours 16 minutes for her first win against Capriati in a Grand Slam event, despite committing 76 unforced errors. It was a hard-hitting, emotion-filled contest, featuring tense baseline exchanges.

The second act came from No. 2 Venus Williams, who beat newcomer Clarisa Fernandez of Argentina, 6-1, 6-4, taking the first set in 19 minutes. Her only difficulty came in closing out the match against the 20-year-old Fernandez, who at No. 87 was the second-lowest ranked player to reach the semifinals at Roland Garros.

It will be Williams versus Williams on Saturday in the French Open final, a repeat of the U.S. Open in September. Venus won that match in straight sets, and she leads the series, 5-2, but Serena won the most recent meeting, 6-2, 6-2, in the semifinals at Key Biscayne, Fla., this year.

"When you're young, you always dream of winning Slams and being No. 1. I never really dreamed of being No. 2," Serena said, smiling. "This is the highest I've ever been, so obviously I'm very happy right now."

Said Venus: "We were just wanting to do so well for the French Open because we hadn't always done our best here, done as well as we thought we could do. But this makes it all the much more sweeter to be No. 1 and No. 2 and also to be in the final."

Venus and Capriati have spent 2002 trading places at No. 1, with Williams first reaching the top spot in February, becoming the first African American player to reach No. 1 since the tour established computer rankings. Capriati will drop to No. 3 when the WTA rankings are released Monday.

"You've got to give them credit," Capriati said. "Inevitable? There's a lot of things that have happened that made them in this position, 1 and 2. They were pretty good with planning things. I don't know if it was like that. They're just having a good year this year, and we'll see if they stay on top."

Capriati said she wasn't sure whether the Williams sisters would have done this if Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport had remained healthy. That logic appeared questionable in light of the Williamses' dominance on the tour since the summer and their increased playing schedule.

It also could have been the frustration of someone who has lost five consecutive times to Serena Williams. Capriati looked well on her way to reversing the trend, taking the first set in 37 minutes. One rally, the last point of the fourth game, had both players practically gasping. Williams was down on one knee, and Capriati rested, leaning on the net.

The long rallies seemed to take more out of Williams early on. Yet she was able to regroup--taking a 5-2 second-set lead--and regained her composure after Capriati fought back to go ahead, 6-5. Williams held her serve at love to make it 6-6, and her powerful serve helped make the difference in the tiebreaker, as she hit an ace and a service winner to go from 3-2 to 5-2. Two points later, Capriati double faulted to lose the set.

In the third, the fifth game was the key. Williams saved two break points and then broke Capriati in the next game, opening a 4-2 lead, and didn't lose another game. Williams hit a cross-court backhand winner on her first match point, then threw her racket in the air and thrust her arms to the sky. Later, she joined the crowd in saluting Capriati's exit from the court, clapping for the former champion.

The last word came not from Richard Williams, who made the prediction long ago, but from Oracene Williams, the mother and coach of Venus and Serena. (Richard has not been in Paris for the French Open). Oracene always has shown an admirable sense of fairness--for instance, clapping for Fernandez. She thought it might be time for her younger daughter to win a Grand Slam event.

"This time maybe I would like Serena to get one because she hasn't got one since '99 [at the U.S. Open] and that's what she wants so badly," Oracene said.



Sister Act

Venus Williams leads, 5-2, in head-to-head matchups against sister Serena Williams:



Hard, outdoor, Round of 64,

Venus wins, 7-6 (4), 6-1

*--* 1998 ROME


Clay, outdoor, quarterfinal,

Venus wins, 6-4, 6-2

*--* 1999 KEY BISCAYNE


Hard, outdoor, final,

Venus wins, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4

*--* 1999 GRAND SLAM CUP


Hard, indoor, final,

Serena wins, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3

*--* 2000 WIMBLEDON


Grass, outdoor, semifinal,

Venus wins, 6-2, 7-6 (3)

*--* 2001 U.S. OPEN


Hard, outdoor, final,

Venus wins, 6-2, 6-4

*--* 2002 KEY BISCAYNE


Hard, outdoor, semifinal,

Serena wins, 6-2, 6-2.

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