Lindsay Davenport hammered Serena in the quarterfinals and then sparked a few days' controversy when she said, "Everyone was expecting an all-Williams final. Martina and I had a little talk and didn't want that to happen." That women's tennis had become, as Venus put it, "like the WWF" didn't get much of a rise out of her. Instead, Venus concentrated on exacting revenge on Hingis, who had knocked her out of Flushing Meadow a year ago in the semifinals. The result was a classic.
Before the Open all attention on the women's draw focused on the fact that Serena and Venus sat on opposite sides and could meet in the final. While the sisters have yet to play a high-quality match against each other, Hingis and Venus collided last Friday afternoon in another edition of the game's most riveting rivalry. Engaging in one net-skimming, line-kissing rally after another, they pushed each other to the limit, but when the third set arrived, Hingis proved herself neither mentally nor physically strong enough to withstand Williams's heat. After going up 5-3 and winning an astonishing 29-stroke rally to lead 15-30 on Williams's serve, Hingis stood two points from the match. However, she timorously turned an overhead into a playable ball, and Williams leaped on it, driving a backhand past her to end a 21-stroke spectacle and shatter Hingis's will. Venus reeled off four consecutive games to close out a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory. "I was afraid of winning," Hingis said. "I stepped back."
Davenport was no better in Saturday's final. She crumbled in the face of little more than Venus's presence. Only two points from going up 5-1 in the first set, Davenport dumped an easy volley and netted a backhand. Her serve then deserted her, and Williams smelled blood. When Davenport double-faulted to hand over the first set, it became only a matter of time. Venus won 6-4, 7-5 and has combined with Serena to win three of the last five Grand Slam singles titles. More important, with a more varied serve and more consistent forehand, Venus has set a new standard for her sister to reach. Hingis is technically No. 1, but with the year's most prestigious titles in hand, Venus stands alone as the best player in women's tennis.
The win brought on the usual Williams spectacle: Venus pulled Richard out of the stands and onto the court before the trophy presentation, and before heading out of Arthur Ashe Stadium to entrance the media with his usual quotable houm, Richard stared into the crowd and yelled, "Straight out of Compton! And Watts, too!" The voyage remains astounding: Venus, once poor and living in inner-city Los Angeles, took a call last Saturday from an effusive President Clinton and proceeded to chastise him for causing traffic jams in New York City, ask for a tax cut and, when he hedged, say teasingly, "Can I read your lips?" When the line went dead, she shrugged to the stunned crowd around her and said, "People are intimidated, but I mean, come on...."
Safin has yet to acquire such poise. When Clinton phoned him late on Sunday night to congratulate and invite him to the White House, Safin could barely muster more than a chorus of "Thank you very much." But he'll learn. His manager, Gerard Tsobanian, is sure that with his looks and intelligence and game, Safin "can be the men's [Anna] Kournikova, except he wins tournaments."
Safin doesn't like this idea. "I'm a normal guy, nothing special," he said. "I'm not going to be Kournikova but a man. I'm not going to be Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. I'm just a player. The men don't have to be like a woman. He has to be a man, first of all, and a player. Show people you are a man, you have something between your legs, you're not just a good-looking face. I'm a man. I showed that to people. I wasn't afraid to win this tournament."
More than two hours after the final had ended, Safin sat on the Louis Armstrong court. He had struggled in the first round at this very place, thought he would lose and then pulled himself together to begin his run to fame. Now he sat in a chair in front of a big camera, taping an interview. Tsobanian stood at the net. He stared over at the boy, and he seemed almost sad. "His life is going to change forever," Tsobanian said, "and he doesn't even know it."