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Open Final Lands On Venus

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 1997; Page B1

NEW YORK, Sept. 5 ó Other players at the U.S. Open sweat. Today, Venus Williams was so thrilled with her gut-wrenching, three-set, two-tiebreaker semifinal victory over 11th-seeded Irina Spirlea that she had exuberance streaming from her very pores.

"I won! I won! I won!" she screamed after dodging two match points then watching Spirleaís final shot go wide. "This is just like a dream. Iím going to have to calm down, Iím so happy."

With the 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (9-7) victory, Williams became the first unseeded woman in the Open-era (1968) to make a U.S. Open singles final and the first since Pam Shriver in 1978 to reach the finals in her Open debut. When she gets to Stadium Court Sunday, she will face top-seeded Martina Hingis, who had a much easier time, defeating Lindsay Davenport, 6-2, 6-4. Williams, 17, and Hingis, 16, will be the youngest pair of Grand Slam finalists in the Open era.

"Theyíre pretty good," Williams said of her chances in that match, which will be the 40th anniversary of Althea Gibsonís first U.S. Open title. Gibson, who won twice here and also won Wimbledon and the French Open, is the only African American woman to win a Grand Slam.

"Iíve never been the type of person who is scared, fearful," she said. "I canít let that hold me back. I wonít. This is the chance of a lifetime, the tournament of a lifetime."

Hingis, who has yet to be pushed to three sets in this tournament, will be the favorite, although for the first time here the likable Swiss probably will not be the darling of the crowd. That distinction transferred to Williams, who took the 21,178 at Arthur Ashe Stadium today along for a heart-stopping ride. It included a comeback from a set point in the first set, a chest-to-chest run-in on a second-set changeover, a failure to win the match on an excellent third-set chance, and thenófinallyóa comeback from two match points in the third-set tiebreaker.

In that tiebreaker, Williams found herself down 4-6 after Spirlea hit a successful passing shot. For a moment, even she allowed herself to think of a Spirlea victory, what it would be like to leave the grounds at Flushing Meadows and have nothing more to come back to. She didnít like the mental picture.

"I guess I was thinking about going home," she said later. "Then I said, ĎThis is not the right thing, Venus.í I had to hold strong. I had to push those thoughts out of the way, say, ĎVenus, this isnít right. Itís not over.í So I just stayed in there."

With Spirlea serving for the match, the pair rallied before Williams hit a spectacular backhand passing shot that skimmed the baseline. Williams served the following point, getting back to 6-6 when Spirlea hit a forehand into the net.

They tied again at 7 before Williams took the lead, going up 8-7 as Spirlea hit a backhand into the net. And then finally, with the crowd in a frenzy, Williams captured the match by forcing Spirlea to hit a backhand slice from a bad angle and then watched it go wide. Spirlea ended the day with 53 unforced errors, compared to Williamsís 38.

"It was a really tough match," Williams said. "She had two match points. Somehow she didnít win them. Somehow I didnít let her win them. Whatever way you want to look at it."

While Williams prevailed at the end, she did not have a perfect match. She faltered in the second set. She almost went down a break in the third game of the third set, double-faulting three times and allowing Spirlea four break points before finally winning her serve. She had the chance to take the match, up 5-4 in the third set, but allowed Spirlea to break her back.

And there was an incident at 4-3 in the second set, when Williams and Spirlea walked into each other, bumping torsos, on a changeover as they crossed the court to get to their seats.

Williams later said that neither player was looking where she was going, but Spirlea took the collision as a personal affront. Perhaps not so coincidentally, she picked up her play afterward, winning the set.

"Sheís not going to turn [as they walked to their seats]," Spirlea said, using an obscenity to describe Williams.

"Iíve done it all the time, I turn. But she just walks. I wanted to see if she was going to turn. She didnít."

Williams will probably see less hot-tempered antics from Hingis, who again displayed comfortable confidence on the court.

Several times she and Davenport laughed after points, although they were usually points that had Davenport traipsing from side-to-side and Hingis hitting winners.

Davenport, in her first Grand Slam semifinal, looked hopeful at the start, opening with a break and going up 2-0, but Hingis quickly smothered that accomplishment by winning six straight games and claiming the set.

For the sixth straight match, Hingis displayed her polish and intelligence, moving her opponent around like a chess piece.

That style is in sharp contrast to that of Williams, who plays more of a power game, but Hingis has no intention of making any changes between now and Sunday. The pair have played twice, with Hingis claiming a 6-2, 6-1 victory in the second round at San Diego and a 6-4, 6-2 win at the Lipton Championships.

"Iíll be the same as always," Hingis said. "Just play my game, mix it up a lot. Especially against her, you have to let her move around.

"She has improved very much, especially at this tournament. She got better and better each match, especially mentally. She thinks, ĎI can make it.í"

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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