- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2002

NEW YORK — Caution: Appearing in Grand Slam finals may be habit-forming.

Provided, of course, that your last name is Williams.

For the second straight year, sisters Venus and Serena Williams will square off one of the grandest stages in tennis, adding another chapter to the most remarkable sibling rivalry in sports.

Behind the unmatched power and athletic ability that have transformed the women's game into a family affair, Venus stopped Amelie Mauresmo 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 and Serena downed Lindsay Davenport 6-3, 7-5 yesterday afternoon in the U.S. Open semifinals at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"It's the most amazing thing in sports, almost," Davenport said. "I mean, could you imagine Tiger Woods challenging a sibling to go head-to-head for all the majors?"

Next comes a much-anticipated — and much-expected — showdown in tonight's prime-time final.

"I think we'll see some real slugging out there," said Richard Williams, the sisters' father.

That much is certain. After squaring off for last year's Open title — captured by Venus — the Sisters Superior have since traded grunts and ground strokes in the French Open and Wimbledon finals, both won by Serena.

"We both want to win really bad," said Serena, whose career mark against Venus is 4-5. "[But] we enjoy it more than anything else. No matter what happens, we're both going to go home with the most money and points in this tournament."

In the past, all-Williams tete-a-tetes have been decidedly ragged, the inevitable outcome of the sisters' distaste for facing each other. The two are close friends, share a home in Florida and seldom enter the same tournaments outside of the Slams; as such, last year's ballyhooed Open final was sloppy and anticlimactic.

Yet as top-seeded Serena has caught up to — and perhaps surpassed — No. 2 seed and defending champion Venus, the quality of play between the pair has spiked, most notably at Wimbledon.

And for added motivation? The winner of tonight's match will be ranked No. 1 in the world. "I've played really good for the last couple of years and it seems like I can't get to that No.1 ever, or just stay there," said Venus, who lost the No. 1 ranking to her little sister. "So it would be nice to be on top."

If little Sis' dismissal of No. 4 seed Davenport was any indication, big Sis will have her hands full. And then some.

Clad in her eye-catching black cat suit — the conversation piece of the Open, an outfit that renders the imagination both obsolete and inadequate — Serena pounced early, breaking Davenport on her initial service game and winning the first set in just over 26 minutes.A former Open champ and three-time Grand Slam winner who is coming back from knee surgery, Davenport failed to hit a single winner in the set — the equivalent of LaVar Arrington going without a tackle.

"[Against] both the Williams, you get the sense that you can't let up, can't just get balls in," Davenport said. "Because then they can hit winners. It's very hard to break both of them."

That said, Davenport sharpened her strokes in the second set, locking in and taking a 5-2 lead after a dicey Williams service game. But Serena responded in kind, breaking back to 5-4 and saving three set points to make it 5-5.

With Davenport facing triple-break point in the next game, Serena uncorked a vicious backhand return that Davenport couldn't dig out. Given the chance to serve out the match, Serena took advantage, finishing matters with a punishing forehand.

"I'm still trying to catch up to Venus," said Serena, the only player in the women's draw not to drop a set in the tournament. "That's what I keep telling myself, so I can have a goal to reach for."

Unlike her younger sister, Venus struggled against a surprisingly game Mauresmo. The surest sign? After removing her trademark tiara midway through the first set, her usual look of regal indifference gave way to frazzled concern — a perfect match for Venus' spotty play.

For the match, Venus hit 10 double faults to three aces and 44 unforced errors to 26 winners. In the first five games alone, she had to fend off three break points, one after a double fault and another after a forehand that plunked harmlessly off the tape.

Venus also was hampered by a blister on her right palm, which WTA trainer Laura Eby had to tape twice in the second and third sets.

"Once I was able to get it wrapped, it was a lot better," Venus said. "I've never had to have my hand wrapped or a blister on my hand before, ever."

Despite the discomfort, Venus summoned her best tennis — or at the very least, her biggest serves — when it mattered most.

Facing a break point on her first service game, Venus ripped three straight 118 mph-plus service winners; serving for the match and down three break points, she conjured three more service winners and a 114 mph ace down the middle."I just didn't want to let the game go," Venus said. "Things hadn't gone as well as I thought they would go the whole match, and I surely didn't want to have to get to five-all. So it was nice to have a good service game when I was on the brink of losing it."

By contrast, Mauresmo sabotaged her clever game plan — a mix of junkballs, power from the back and aggressive net play — with untimely service miscues. Serving at 3-4 in the first and 2-2 in the third, she tossed in a pair of head-scratching double faults, effectively eliminating her margin for error.

"I didn't feel tight out there today," said Mauresmo, who has, to put it mildly, a reputation for stumbling in big matches. "I just went out there, [played] my game. That was my best today."

After the match, Mauresmo — who lost to Serena in the Wimbledon semifinals — was asked which Williams sister would be better tonight.

"Today, [Serena] might be [this much] better than Venus," she said, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "But [it's] the final of a Grand Slam. They're sisters. I think anything can happen."

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