Semifinals a mixed volley Davenport, Williams, Hingis, Novotna add touch of diversity

September 11, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- One is 17 and No. 1 in the world, her opponent 29 and just coming into her own.

Another is 22, trying to reach her first Grand Slam final and wide-eyed at the idea that only two women have won their first Grand Slam event after age 21.

And there is another teen-ager, age 18, who made a bold, bead-clacking debut a year ago. Now, despite having made just one career Grand Slam final, she has had the nerve to show up here with seven different tennis dresses -- one for each of the seven rounds she'd have to play to win the U.S. Open championship.

Their names, Martina, Jana, Lindsay and Venus, are distinctive. Tennis fans don't need the respective Hingis, Novotna, Davenport and Williams to know who they are. And for anyone who loves tennis, today's women's semifinals translates to a culinary feast. Chateaubriand all around.

For the first time in 10 years, four of the top five seeds have advanced to the Open semifinals.

A year ago, it was Hingis, who would win her first Open title, 6-0, 6-4, against Williams, the first unseeded woman to reach the final since Baltimore's Pam Shriver in 1978.

Today, those two have the chance of creating a rematch.

No. 1 Hingis will face No. 3 Novotna in the first of the two matches scheduled for Arthur Ashe Stadium Court. In the second semifinal, No. 5 Williams challenges No. 2 Davenport.

"One thing for sure," said Williams, who will be wearing her sixth different dress, "an American is going to make it to the U.S. Open finals."

The men's semifinals, which were finalized yesterday and will be contested tomorrow, offer two distinctly different matches.

One promises the spectacular, with No. 1 Pete Sampras, trying for a record-tying 12th Grand Slam title, and defending champion Patrick Rafter, the No. 3 seed. The other is of unknown potential, with No. 10 Carlos Moya, who won his quarterfinal match against Magnus Larsson yesterday, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, against Australian Mark Philippoussis, a 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 7-6 (12-10) winner over Swede Thomas Johansson.

"I know, no one expected me to be here," said Moya, a Spaniard who won the French Open. "Maybe people just thought that I'm good clay-court player. But I always say I want to be all-court player. I'm going to try to win this tournament. It's not going to be easy, but I will try."

It won't be easy for any of the women either.

Beyond their spectacular talent are their compelling individual stories.

Hingis, after her brilliant breakthrough year in 1997, has been up and down this season. Her No. 1 ranking, maintained for 76 consecutive weeks, is on the line -- and Novotna and Davenport have a shot at it, should Hingis lose today.

"I have motivation," said Hingis, who, with partner Novotna, will try to win the women's doubles crown against Davenport and Natasha Zvereva Sunday.

"Last year, I was thinking on court," Hingis said. "Then I kind of lost that. I somehow was always like too confident. I was just going into the match not really thinking about what I'm doing out there."

But after her straight-set victory over Monica Seles two days ago, Hingis is all smiles.

"I just feel like fighting again," she said. "I feel like the points are in my hands. Against Jana, I will try to just play a very consistent game and not let her come in too much. You know, Jana beat me at Wimbledon in the semis, but that was a different surface and I want that revenge back."

For years, Novotna has been seeking redemption, not revenge. She had been tagged a choker ever since losing the 1993 Wimbledon final to Steffi Graf and then crying while in the arms of the Duchess of Kent. Now, she says, "I am 'Jana, Wimbledon champ,' and nothing more."

It took her 13 years to win her first Grand Slam title. Now, at 29, she has it. It has made her brim with confidence, and made other players look at her differently. Even Hingis forgot, for a moment.

"You know, Jana is a very experienced player, especially at a Grand Slam," she said. "She never chokes -- ah, well, she did against Steffi, OK. But since she won Wimbledon, the last two tournaments, she always gets where she needs to go."

Today, Novotna will need to go to the net if she is going to short-circuit Hingis' revived game and prevent a relentless pounding.

4 The Davenport/Williams match is quite different.

Davenport is the girl next door. She has never seemed overanxious about winning a Grand Slam title and taken her time working into competitive physical condition to do it.

"It did make me think, when I learned that nobody since Virginia Ruzici [in 1978] has won her first Grand Slam title after the age of 21," Davenport said before Novotna won this year's Wimbledon. "But I feel like I've done everything I can up to this point to try and win this tournament. I'm going to give it my best shot. If it happens, that's great."

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