NEW YORK (AP) - Tennis found its Tiger Woods.
Venus Williams, no longer a curiosity or a teen pumped up by hype, emerged as a legitimate claimant to the future of women's tennis Friday when she advanced to the U.S. Open final and a showdown against Martina Hingis.
No final in Grand Slam history has featured two players as young as the 17-year-old Williams and the 16-year-old Hingis, and their meeting could well presage the direction of the game for years to come.
"I worked so hard for this all my life," Williams said. "I get to play on Day 14. Hey, Daddy, I don't have to come home now because I won."
Beads clacking, arms flailing, legs splayed, the tall, gangly Williams became the first unseeded woman finalist in the Open era and the first to go so far in her debut since Pam Shriver in 1978.
In a match as brilliantly played as it was thrilling to watch, Williams showed guts, stamina and a creative flair to beat No. 11 Irina Spirlea 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (9-7). By comparison, Hingis' 6-2, 6-4 ouster of Lindsay Davenport was a boring warmup act.
Williams is still a raw talent, inventing her game as she goes along after being trained by her father, Richard, since birth to become a champion. While he's stayed away - he didn't even want her to play this tournament - she's been making history.
"I convinced him four days before I left," Williams said. "I'm glad I'm here. He's glad. It's not like I'm going to say I was right or he was wrong."
Williams has been discovering herself more with each match at this Open, coming up with shots that had never been part of her repertoire - drops of incredible touch, volleys from every angle, running groundstrokes of balls that seem to be past her.
What the 6-foot-2 Williams never lacked, though, was a confidence that borders on cockiness, and she's shown that throughout the tournament.
It certainly appeared in a chest-bumping incident with Spirlea on a changeover in the second set, after Williams held serve to 4-3. Williams wore an intense expression as she bounced quickly toward her chair, and Spirlea had a sour, angry look as she came from the other direction more slowly. They collided at the net post.
"I was not going to move," said the No. 11 Spirlea, who has taken verbal swipes at several popular teens in the tournament in the past week. "She never tried to turn. I wanted to see if she would turn, and she didn't. She thinks she's the (expletive) Venus Williams."
Williams shrugged off the confrontation.
"I'm not having any injury from that bump," Williams said. "I thought we both weren't looking. I'm sorry she feels that way. It's not a big thing to me. No one said, `Excuse me."'
From her first match in Arthur Ashe Stadium on opening day, an appearance accorded her as a promising black player from the public parks of Compton, Calif., to the last points against Spirlea, Williams conducted herself with a blend of youthful joy and fearlessness.
Even facing double match point at 6-4 in the third-set tiebreaker, Williams didn't waver.
"I was thinking about going home," Williams said, "and I said, `That's not the right thing to think, Venus, you've got to hold strong. Push those thoughts out of the way. It's not over. She has to win a point to win the match.' She had two match points. Somehow, she didn't win them. Somehow, I didn't let her win them."
She drilled a perfect running backhand that zipped by Spirlea and left the Romanian stunned. Williams then fended off another break when Spirlea netted a forehand. Two points later, with Spirlea serving, Williams lunged to whack a forehand return into the corner, and Spirlea could only dump it into the net to set up match point for Williams as the crowd roared.
When Spirlea, who had knocked out former champion Monica Seles, sailed a backhand wide to lose the final point, Williams leaped in the air and bounced up and down in disbelief. The championship her parents always told her she would one day win was now within her reach.
Williams, No. 66, is the lowest ranked woman to make a Grand Slam final since No. 68 Barbara Jordan won the 1979 Australian Open.
The top-ranked Hingis' romp over Davenport - the first of seven matches between them that didn't go three sets - lasted only 71 minutes and wasn't a work of art amid the tricky gusts of wind.
Hingis displayed all the shots that shaped her near-perfect year - deep groundstrokes, soft drops, angled scoops, acrobatic volleys.
"One side you're against the wind, one side you're with the wind. I never felt I was with the wind," Davenport said. "I always felt she was backing me up with some good shots. A lot of times when she's on the run, she hits very well because she has such loose hands, such soft hands."
Nothing fazed Hingis. Not the breezes, not the breaks of her serve in the first game of each set, and certainly not Davenport's timid attack.
After falling behind 2-0 in the first set, Hingis sped through the next six games, breaking Davenport for the third straight time to close out the set with a volley at deuce and a forehand crosscourt winner after chasing down a drop shot at set point.
Neither player held service through the first four games of the second set, but then Hingis bore down and showed off her talent and endearingly feisty personality.
On the first point as she served at 2-2, Davenport hit a nice drop shot that Hingis ran down and scooped up with a backhand. Davenport then lobbed over Hingis' head, only to see the Swiss teen scoot back to get that and rip a forehand pass. Davenport lunged for the ball, but could only volley it into the net.
As Davenport sagged at the net, Hingis pumped her fist and smiled at her doubles partner and friendly foe.
Hingis went on to hold service for a 3-2 lead, then made it 4-2 when Davenport double-faulted on the fifth break point against her in the next game.
Davenport didn't give up quite yet, though she knew she was in trouble. She broke back and held, finally and for only the second time in the match, to make it 4-4, but then watched in amazement as Hingis struck a beautiful backhand half-volley drop on the way to holding for 5-4. Faced with that kind of play, Davenport went out meekly in the next game, clubbing a backhand long at match point.
"My type of game is high risk. I need to go for it to win," Davenport said. "Today, when I was going for it on the side with wind, I thought my balls were going to hit the fence. I thought, `Oh, my God, that is a little embarrassing.' I knew I had to make errors. Looking back, I probably didn't take enough risks.
"If I played well, it was still going to be a tough match. She has the capability of killing people. ... I think it's going to be pretty tough for Martina to lose the final."