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Hingis, Venus are compelling rivals

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Latest: Friday September 08, 2000 09:44 PM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- After wiping a gangly, giggly teenager named Venus Williams off the courts of Key Biscayne in the spring of 1997, Martina Hingis nearly tripped on a bead in the interview room. "Maybe someone should give this back to Venus," she joked, tossing the spheroid to a WTA Tour employee. So far as anyone can tell, that may have marked the opening salvo in tennis' strongest, most contoured rivalry.

Friday their compendium of memorable mano-à-mano throwdowns got even thicker. In three breathtaking sets that left more than 20,000 fans equally drained and exhilarated, Williams outlasted her foil 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the U.S. Open semifinals. Like all great matches, this one had the ebb and flow of a sine curve.

Just when it looked as though Hingis was pulling away, Venus stole the second set. Just when it looked as though Williams was pulling away, Hingis scored an early break in the third. When Hingis was two points from winning the match, Williams won the point of the year and stormed back to take the next four games. As Williams spun like a top and eventually made her way to the net after match point, she mouthed the word, "Unbelievable." Our sentiments exactly.

What makes the Hingis-Venus rivalry so special? For one, there are the obvious physical differences, the tall, lithe African-American from Compton vs. the porcelain Caucasian with the Swiss/Czech provenance. That there's been no love lost between the two doesn't hurt the storyline, either. It's not exactly a blood feud, but their post-match "handshake" -- more a random clipping of palms -- spoke volumes about the state of their relationship. Further, that neither player harbors much interest in humility creates distinct rooting interests. What tennis fan was indifferent to the outcome?

But beyond surface characteristics, the most compelling disparities, finally, are the ones on the court. Referring to boxing, someone once remarked, "Styles make fights." So, too, tennis. Hingis and Venus are both spectacular players, but they're utterly different. One zigs where the other zags. It's not merely the time-honored, power vs. finesse dichotomy -- though Venus did have 51 winners to Hingis' 13. They like different angles, they like to employ different spots on the court, they prefer different speeds, heights and spins. As Hingis confessed to me last month, "Venus tests me in a way that Lindsay [Davenport] and Serena [Williams] don't."

Venus will now move on to the final, trying to extend her winning streak to 26 matches, encompassing two Slams. She hasn't lost a match since Roland Garros, though she nearly did Friday. "I know how it feels to be close to losing," Venus said afterward. But losing outright? "That's a foreign concept and not a very accepted one," she said. For Hingis, it isn't particularly well-accepted either. She can take some consolation, though, knowing that among all great rivalries, the winners and losers invariably swap roles.

Half volleys

In the other, less breathtaking semifinal, Davenport was leading Elena Dementieva 6-2, 5-2 and 40-0. Rarely perceived as a player who tightens when the pressure's on, Davenport had to go to a tiebreaker to win the second set. ... Nice week for Lleyton Hewitt. Not only will he play Pete Sampras for a spot in the men's final, but he and partner Max Mirnyi took the men's doubles trophy Friday. ... Serena Williams is back in Florida, getting treatment on her left big toe. ... The inimitable Goran Ivanisevic may have lost more than a week ago, but he was still around the courts, presumably practicing before the Olympics.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will file daily reports from the Open.

Related information
Williams defeats Hingis 4-6, 6-3, 7-5
Thursday's On the Court: Safin entertains with racket and mouth
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