For famed two, it's, `Here we go again'

Serena's big comeback made reality of a match seemingly foreordained

Australian Open

January 24, 2003|By THE NEW YORK TIMES

MELBOURNE, Australia - When Serena Williams' comeback against Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open semifinals ended in bright sunlight, with Venus watching from the stands, the history-making sisters had added another achievement to their collective resume.

No other two players in the 35-year history of Open tennis have played each other in four consecutive Grand Slam finals: not Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert; not Steffi Graf and Monica Seles.

Venus and Serena will complete that cycle tomorrow in what will be the first Australian Open final for each. The bigger issue is whether Venus can keep her sister from completing a cycle of her own, the eponymous "Serena Slam."

Serena defeated Venus in the last three Grand Slam tournaments last year. She has won 27 singles matches in a row in the majors, and though a victory tomorrow would not give her a true Grand Slam, a term used for winning all four in the same calendar year, it would be a powerful statement in light of the increasing depth, talent and prize money in the modern women's game.

"Hopefully, this time it will be different than the last three," Venus said after her 6-3, 6-3 victory over Justine Henin-Hardenne, Clijsters' less robust Belgian compatriot, in Thursday's first semifinal.

With one Williams sister already in the final at this Grand Slam event, modern tennis etiquette dictated that the other Williams sister needed to be next.

While Clijsters came agonizingly close to changing the unwritten rules, it was ultimately Serena Williams who fought off two match points and a 5-1 deficit in the third set to keep her date with older sibling Venus.

"It was just an unbelievable battle out there," Serena said of her 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 escape. "I thought, `I don't want to lose, 6-1.' Then I said, `I don't want to lose, 6-2.' So I just kept fighting. Next thing I know, I came back."

Venus' performance was far from flawless as she beat Henin-Hardenne for the seventh straight time. There were too many unforced errors, double faults and missed opportunities on serve for that.

But Venus maintained the positive, attacking frame of mind she brought into the new year: pouncing on short balls with relish, pushing forward with regularity and playing just enough great defense to keep her talented, athletic opponent from turning a competitive match into a suspenseful match.

How difficult will it be tomorrow for Venus to know that the best tennis player in her family is trying to win four Grand Slam titles in a row?

"On the court I'm a competitor," Venus said. "No matter who it is, I hate to lose. The same with her - maybe her even more. Of course we're sisters. If she were to twist her ankle on the court, of course I'd be concerned, but I would still have to go out and hit the next shot."

It was clear, right from the first exchange, that Serena was going to have to hit plenty of fine shots to shake free of the fourth-seeded Clijsters. As the match wore on, it was also clear that Serena, who was three points from defeat in the first round against Emilie Loit, was far from at her best.

She finished with 65 unforced errors to Clijsters' 33. But though Williams, the top seed, struggled mightily with her consistency and sought treatment for three blisters on her right foot while trailing by 1-2 in the final set, she eventually reminded Clijsters and anybody else watching why she is one of the world's best athletes.

The crowd at Rod Laver Arena did not like Serena's decision to take an injury timeout, considering it an attempt to break Clijsters' rhythm. But they would have reacted differently if they had seen the up-close television footage of the burst blister on the ball of her foot.

The fans had voiced their support of Clijsters, 19, from the beginning.

Clijsters took no issue with the break before or after, and it certainly did not stop her roll. She won the next three games to lead 5-1, but Serena has a mean streak when cornered. She held serve, but was still down two breaks.

In the next game, she saved two match points: the first at 40-30 with a deep return off a first serve that earned her a Clijsters backhand error into the net. Serena saved the second match point with even bolder shot-making and risk-taking, finishing off a fine point with a stretch forehand volley that Clijsters was unable to handle.

It was soon 5-4, but instead of seizing her second opportunity to serve for the match, Clijsters double-faulted on the first two points. She clawed back to 30-30, but Serena hit a winner during the next exchange.

Clijsters then made a backhand error to lose her edge for good. It was a very weak game at a very important moment, and Serena needed no more encouragement as she went on to complete her ferocious sweep of the final six games of the match.

NOTE: The Williams sisters won the women's doubles title today, defeating Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

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