- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

NEW YORK — Venus Williams was grunting loudly, Lindsay Davenport was muttering to herself, and about 20,000 fans were jumping out of their seats after each point.

A few hours before defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne meekly left the U.S. Open with a loss to Nadia Petrova, Williams and Davenport were locked in a matchup fit for a Grand Slam final, not the fourth round. So, too, was the riveting last game.

Seven major titles and 49 weeks at No.1 between them, Davenport and Williams swapped powerful strokes and anxious moments in a final act encompassing 24 points over 13 minutes yesterday. Nine deuces. Five break points for 2000-01 Open champion Williams. Five match points for 1998 Open champ Davenport.

In the end, Davenport was slightly steadier and stronger, pulling out that game and a 7-5, 6-4 victory to reach the quarterfinals.

It was a fittingly tight way to end the pair’s 25th meeting, never so early in a tournament; they came in 12-all.

“A tough one to get through,” said Davenport, who faces 62nd-ranked Shinobu Asagoe for a semifinal berth. “I wanted to win so badly, and I played such a great, calm match until that point and then let a few errors creep in.”

She and Amelie Mauresmo both have a chance to replace Henin-Hardenne at No.1, because of the Belgian’s 6-3, 6-2 loss to No.14 Petrova. Henin-Hardenne was betrayed by her best shot, the backhand, which she flubbed on the final point of the first set and the final points in each game when she was broken twice in the second set.

Henin-Hardenne, who returned from nearly three months off with a viral infection to win an Olympic gold medal, totaled 30 unforced errors.

That still wasn’t as many as Williams, who since playing her first Slam in 1997 never had gone an entire season without reaching at least one major semifinal. She hurt herself with 42 miscues, mostly off forehands and more than double Davenport’s count.

“It was me. I made too many errors,” Williams said. “The thing that hurt me the most was my inconsistency.”

That’s been a problem for a while, leading to her slide to No.12 in the rankings. Davenport, meanwhile, has won 21 straight matches since talking about retirement at Wimbledon.

Another big-name showdown is looming in the men’s quarterfinals: Andre Agassi vs. Roger Federer. Agassi advanced with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 victory over pal and occasional practice partner Sargis Sargsian, who was on court for nearly 10 hours in his previous two outings. This one took 90 minutes.

Federer’s opponent, No.16 Andrei Pavel, pulled out with a bad back.

“There’s nothing more you ask for than to play a big event against the best player in this environment,” Agassi said. “It’s time to bring the best tennis.”

Because Federer’s match was canceled, Martina Navratilova’s mixed doubles quarterfinal against Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova was shifted to Arthur Ashe Stadium. Navratilova, into the doubles quarterfinals with Lisa Raymond, paired with Leander Paes to defeat Sharapova and Max Mirnyi 6-4, 6-4.

Mary Pierce, who beat Sharapova in singles, lost to No.9 Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-6 (5), 6-2. Kuznetsova plays Petrova next in an all-Russian quarterfinal.

Asagoe upset No.29 Eleni Daniilidou 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-3, making her the lowest-ranked Open quarterfinalist since Williams was 66th in her 1997 debut.

How long ago that seems.

Now Williams needs to regroup and recapture the drive that carried her to the top ranking, four Slam titles and six runner-up finishes. Already this year, she had earlier-than-usual exits at the Australian Open (third round), French Open (quarterfinals) and Wimbledon (second round).

She missed the second half of last season, including the Open, with a torn abdominal muscle, and had to try to deal with the shooting death of half-sister Yetunde in September 2003.

“I’m really disappointed [about] all this year’s Grand Slams. But I’ve learned that the position that I’m in is not necessarily my fault,” Williams said. “I can’t be hard on myself. I have to take my time and realize that it’s just a matter of time before I’m playing my best.”

She brought her level up a lot in that fantastic final game, with Davenport serving at 5-4. Williams also raised the volume, grunting louder and louder with each shot, a sharp contrast to Davenport’s soft exhales.

Davenport played impeccably until then, never facing a break point and trailing on her serve just once: at 0-15 in the second set’s fourth game, which she opened by sailing a backhand long.

And she broke Williams twice, for a 6-5 lead in the first set, and 3-2 in the second.

In the final game, they went back and forth, with Williams swatting two winners to get her first break point, wasted with a forehand return long.

On the first match point, a 12-stroke exchange ended with Williams striking a cross-court forehand winner. Davenport ceded her second match point by double-faulting, then turned her back to the net and chatted to herself.

“I felt OK until I lost the second match point,” Davenport said. “Then you get a little like: ‘Oh, no. Don’t do this.’”

There was more, including a forehand that sailed long on match point No.3 and Williams’ brilliant cross-court forehand passing winner to erase No.4. Eventually, though, Williams succumbed, floating a forehand return long on No.5.

“Definitely had the buzz of a bigger match than a round-of-16 match. They were definitely into it there at the end,” Davenport said, referring to the crowd.

“I certainly don’t want to have a letdown now.”

As successful as she’s been, Davenport often has been eclipsed somewhat by other stars. Right before the start of yesterday’s match, chair umpire Sandra de Jenken apparently forgot who was playing and substituted the name of a tour journeywoman in announcing: “Ladies and gentlemen, Lindsay Lee-Waters elected to receive.”

No one there will forget the final game, though.

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