Afterward Hingis explained her defeat by claiming that she was tired. In fact, she'd had the previous day off and hadn't played the week before arriving at Key Biscayne.
"The pressure of being Number 1 has drained the living hell out of Hingis," Richard Williams said. "I've told Venus, 'Nineteen ninety-eight is your year to take the Number 1 spot.' But, as sad as this sounds, I kind of hope she doesn't take it this year. These girls, when they become Number 1, they look older, they act older, they get tired fast. It's the pressure."
There are, of course, other factors. But given the frequent injuries of Steffi Graf and the inconsistency of Monica Seles, who has not recovered emotionally from her stabbing five years ago and is now nursing her terminally ill father, control of women's tennis has been seized by a new generation. In the bottom half of the Lipton draw, Kournikova feasted on the vulnerable and the old. She began with a quick victory over 15-year-old Mirjana Lucic, of Croatia, also thought to be a future star, then went on safari among Top 10 players-hunting down No. 4 Seles, No. 9 Conchita Martínez, No. 2 Lindsay Davenport and No. 8 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario—to reach her first career final.
Against Venus on Saturday, Kournikova dominated the opening set and then flamed out, losing 2-6, 6-4, 6-1. Williams thus earned her second career title—indeed, her second within the month, after a victory at the IGA Tennis Classic in Oklahoma City on March 1. If she goes on to win a Grand Slam event this year, she will probably harken back not to her victory over Kournikova but to her win over Hingis.
"She isn't as strong as I am," Williams said of Hingis. "A lot of times the strong person doesn't have to think as much as the next person. When I learn to [think more], I'm going to become a much better player."
In the meantime Williams is developing into that rare woman player with whom the men can identify. "I think she's the best athlete the women's game has seen so far," said Agassi. "Now it's a matter of how she puts it all together. She's going to beat 99 percent of the girls because of the athlete she is."
"I don't know why they're talking about Ríos and Sampras," Agassi told the Lipton crowd last Friday night after he won his semifinal over Alex Corretja in straight sets. "At the end of the year, I'm going to be ranked Number 1."
Agassi refused to call his performance this year—he had a 24-3 record going into the Lipton—a comeback, pointing out that he never stopped playing tennis. He did stop playing it well, which he said happened because he lost interest in the game after being beaten in the 1995 U.S. Open final by Sampras. Along with his interest, Agassi's ranking went south, falling from No. 2 in 1995 to No. 8 the next year to that dismal 141 last November.
"You can't make yourself want something that you're not really wanting," he said last week. During his doldrums Agassi enjoyed himself more off the court than on it, spending time with friends and family, including Brooke Shields, whom he married last April. Still, he kept showing up at tournaments, winning just 12 of 24 matches last year and losing in the first round eight times. "I was suffering through what I would consider nothing short of an embarrassment," Agassi said.
By November he had promised to rededicate himself to the game. I le entered a pair of lowly satellite tournaments, losing a final in Las Vegas and winning an event in Bur-bank. He wasn't trying to prove to himself how low he had sunk. "I just needed the matches," he said. Agassi had doubts—he was 27, old age for many great players—but he knew that he had recovered from slumps and from wasted opportunities early in his career, as well as from a wrist injury in 1993. By Sunday afternoon, when he played the fifth Lipton final of his career, he had won two tournaments this year, and his match record in '98 was equaled only by that of Ríos.