Originally created 09/08/02

Serena stakes her claim

NEW YORK - Take that, big sis!

Serena Williams confirmed at the U.S. Open what's become clear since spring: She's not just No. 1 in the world rankings, she's No. 1 in her home hierarchy.

Unabashed about powering the ball and taking advantage of mistakes just as against any other opponent, she easily beat Venus Williams 6-4, 6-3 on Saturday night to win a third straight Grand Slam title - all by beating her older sister in the final.

Before the match, they acted like siblings, with Serena walking around the umpire's chair to whisper in Venus' ear during an elaborate ceremony that included Aretha Franklin's singing and the unfurling of a U.S. flag the size of the court.

And when it ended, they hugged at the net, both smiling.

But between the lines, Serena showed little love for Venus, taking full advantage of her 10 double faults and 23 other unforced errors.

A glance at such statistics might indicate a poorly played match, which most of their previous nine tour meetings were. But like the Wimbledon final in July, they both pounded the ball and chased down each other's apparent winners.

When Venus faced match points at 5-3 in the second set, she wiped out the first with a second-serve ace, and the next by extending for a pretty backhand volley winner.

Two points later, Venus - playing with tape on her right hand to cover a blister - double faulted to set up a third match point. Serena capitalized, sending a booming backhand to a corner, and Venus' forehand hit the net.

Perhaps Serena just wanted it more, an extension of her self-described rededication to excellence during the past year. It's helped her go 4-0 in 2002 against Venus and even their career series at 5-5.

While Venus was quiet and straight-faced throughout the match, Serena displayed plenty of the fire she does when beating other top women.

En route to breaking Venus for a 5-4 lead in the first set, Serena yelled at herself after a poor lob. Later in that game, a 12-stroke rally ended with Venus' forehand error, and Serena watched the ball fall out, then screamed "Come on!" and pumped her fist.

Serena served out the set at love in the next game, capping a string of eight straight points with an exclamation point of an ace at 105 mph. She had a 16-13 edge in winners, but both wiped away countless others with the supreme court coverage they have used to become the first siblings ranked 1-2.

"I did the best I could today. I did make a lot of errors and that makes it tough to win the match," Venus said. "I think Serena was the best player in the tournament this year."

The men's final today promises to be a classic: Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi.

A matchup Agassi called "a nice toast to the past" pits a generation's best server - 31-year-old Sampras - against its best returner - 32-year-old Agassi - and the winner will be the Open's oldest champion since 1970.

Both played spectacularly in Saturday's semifinals, looking nothing like the players who exited Wimbledon in the second round. Sixth-seeded Agassi got past defending champion and No. 1-ranked Lleyton Hewitt 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (1), 6-2. Sampras, seeded just 17th and without a title in more than two years, beat No. 24 Sjeng Schalken 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2.

Rivals for two decades, all the way back to under-12 junior tennis, Sampras and Agassi have met 33 times on tour (Sampras holds a 19-14 edge, including a four-tiebreaker thriller in the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals). It's their fifth Grand Slam final (Sampras leads 3-1).

The Williams sisters are at the start of building such a rivalry, although they haven't brought out the best in each other much.

In last year's U.S. Open final, Venus won 6-2, 6-4 despite only seven winners. In the French Open final in June, Serena emerged with a straight-set victory while the sisters combined for 101 unforced errors, 14 double faults and 13 breaks of service. At Wimbledon, at least, they produced one set of sustained brilliance.

Perhaps it's simply a result of facing the game's other most intimidating player, or of two opponents who know each other's strengths and weaknesses much too well. Or maybe it stems from the difficulty of trying to be dominant against a sibling.

They hit together two hours before Saturday's final on a practice court 20 feet away from Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Fans are working their way through this new phenomenon right along with the Williams family. When in sports have two athletes from the same family been so dominant at the same time?

Predictably, just as the sisters began to warm up for the match at 9:16 p.m., one fan yelled: "Go, Williams!"


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