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Hingis Beats Williams in Battle of the Ages

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 1997; Page D1

NEW YORK, Sept. 7 — Martina Hingis tried to emulate Venus Williams, her opponent in today’s U.S. Open final, when she ran to her mother in victory, and tried to climb the wall to give her a hug. Hingis needed a boost up the blue wall of Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was the only help she needed all afternoon.

In a women’s singles final that pitted the 16-year-old Hingis against the 17-year-old Williams, Hingis used her experience and her remarkably versatile skills to claim a 6-0, 6-4 victory over Williams, tennis’s brightest new face.

Hingis’s victory gave her three of the four Grand Slam titles this season — she lost in the French Open final to Iva Majoli — and further established her as the benchmark for all women’s players today. It also ended one of the most remarkable runs in U.S. Open history, as the unseeded and 66th-ranked Williams finally lost a match in what was her U.S. Open debut.

At the end of a tournament that, at times, has been marked by controversy, both players showed more on-court maturity, poise — and yes, skill — than one could reasonably expect from two teenagers playing on such a huge stage. Asked to speak at center court after her lopsided defeat, Williams graciously complimented Hingis, telling the sellout crowd — a crowd that backed Williams from the first point — that "you guys could not ask for a better winner for this tournament." And Hingis made a point of lauding Williams in return.

"There were always people talking about her, but she never brought up the results," Hingis said, referring to the fact that Williams was playing in only her third Grand Slam and 19th tournament overall. "Now, this time, making a first-time performance at the U.S. Open, and reaching the finals, is not a bad effort after all. It’s pretty good."

Williams was the first rookie to make the U.S. Open final since Pam Shriver in 1978 and the first African American woman to do so since Althea Gibson won here in 1958. Her big moment, however, was overshadowed by issues her father, Richard Williams, raised in a telephone interview with the Associated Press on Saturday. Richard Williams, who has declined to attend this tournament despite his role as his daughter’s coach, charged that the bump between his daughter and Irina Spirlea during a changeover in their semifinal match Friday was a "racial thing." He also referred to Spirlea as a "big, white turkey."

Asked after her match today if she agreed with her father’s statements, and if she had experienced racism on the World Tennis Association tour, Venus Williams — who clearly was uncomfortable with what her father had said, and herself never has accused anyone in tennis of racist behavior — tactfully tried to sidestep the issue.

"I think with this moment in the first year in Arthur Ashe Stadium, it all represents everyone being together, everyone being — having a chance to play," she said. "So I think this is definitely ruining the mood, these questions about racism."

When it became clear she did not wish to address the issue further, Williams — who is here with her mother and sisters — took advantage of an interview-room disturbance to cut short her postmatch news conference.

It was awkward end to a tournament that had been such a wonderful coming-out for Williams, and had provided U.S. Open watchers a glimpse at what could be the sport’s future.

The event also provided a showcase for the young woman who embodies both the sport’s future and its present — the precocious Hingis — who is so far above the rest of the field that she has lost but two matches this entire season. Her loss to Majoli at the French Open occurred seven weeks after knee surgery that resulted from a fall from a horse at her home in Switzerland.

Had it not been for that horse — named Tina — Hingis may have been the first woman to win all four Grand Slam tournaments since Steffi Graf did so in 1988.

"It wasn’t my horse," Hingis said, laughing. "I’m not riding her anymore."

Hingis won this tournament with an incredible domination of her opposition. She did not drop a set in any of the six rounds, and lost an average of just under four games per match. And Williams, like the others before her, managed just four herself.

"I just felt that I should have pulled my game together," Williams said. "Maybe slow it down, maybe do something a little bit different."

Williams came out with two big serves and two big points in the first game, and led 40-15, but Hingis broke her anyway. During that set, Williams not only failed to hold serve, she never again played a point in which she was poised to win a game.

Hingis — always ruthless on the court, no matter how much she may smile — continued to play to Williams’s weaknesses in the second set, and wisely stayed almost entirely away from her beloved touch drop, which Williams, unlike others, was able to reach the few times Hingis played it. Never willing to give up, Williams battled to hold serve three times and break Hingis once — to tie the game at 4 — but the outcome of this match never appeared to be in doubt.

Hingis won the title with a little forehand volley, then celebrated by throwing her racket into the crowd. Once she was rid of her baggage, Hingis ran to the corner to find her mother, coach and best friend, Melanie Molitor, and — unlike the 6-foot-2 Williams — she had to be helped up before she could give Molitor a big hug.

"I saw Venus do it," Hingis said, referring to the way Williams celebrated her quarterfinal victory over Anke Huber. "I guess I’m not as tall as she is or have as strong hands."

She doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter. Today, once again, Hingis proved that the biggest thing in women’s tennis is her game.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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