Williams Keeps It Interesting With Victory Over Seles


The weary, mentally drained Venus Williams has put up some incredible numbers through the summer and fall--31 consecutive matches and five tournament titles, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

She's also performing humanitarian duty on the side.

Williams is saving the Olympic tennis event from tumbling into a general malaise. Really, how excited can you get about Tommy Haas reaching the semifinals? Or Arnaud Di Pasquale?

Williams offers the only compelling theater. Her three-set quarterfinal victory against Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain on Sunday was clearly the best match of the tournament, featuring dramatic shot-making under crisp, windy conditions.

Less than 24 hours later, the second-seeded Williams put her winning streak on the line against a resurgent Monica Seles and met the test, winning today's semifinal, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3. For the gold medal, Williams will play 18-year-old Russian Elena Dementieva, who defeated Australian teenager Jelena Dokic, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, in the other semifinal.

A thrilled Dementieva knelt on the court in celebration when Dokic netted a forehand return on match point. She also did the same thing about a year ago when she defeated Williams in the Fed Cup final at Palo Alto.

"I don't know if I can beat her," Dementieva said of the final. "It was a great result. But it was like one year ago. Now it's different. She's very strong now and in very good condition. I have nothing to lose."

Williams was a struggling player when she lost to Dementieva. She had just watched her younger sister, Serena, win the first Grand Slam singles title for the family, at the U.S. Open. Billie Jean King, the Fed Cup and Olympic coach, was simply trying to put Venus back together.

Now, the job is simpler. King and assistant coach Zina Garrison said that Williams is "on automatic pilot." Williams is winning matches despite struggling with her serve, double-faulting a combined 21 times in the Sanchez-Vicario and Seles matches.

"I wasn't tired," Williams said. "I'm pretty young. My mom says when she was young, she didn't get tired, so I shouldn't get tired."

She had called the match against Sanchez-Vicario a "civil war." So what was this?

"Even more of a civil war playing against an American," she said. "But Arantxa and Monica are two different payers, so I had to approach the match a little bit differently. . . . You can't expect to play every match perfect. As long as you come through, I think it shows some guts and courage--and a win is a win, and that's all that counts in the record."

It was difficult for King and Garrison. They watched the match from the players' lounge, at the request of the team, and thought it would be a quick semifinal when Williams led by a set and 4-2.

"Our children were playing today," King said.

Said Garrison: "Serena was so sweet. She said now you really know how it was when we play each other."

Most likely, the toughest emotional test of Venus' 31-match streak was the Wimbledon semifinal victory over Serena. Martina Navratilova won 74 consecutive matches before her streak ended on Dec. 6, 1984, at the Australian Open against Helena Sukova. Venus doubts that anyone will approach Navratilova's all-time mark.

"I just think the field is much tougher these days as far as competitors," Williams said.

The field here may not be as difficult as a Grand Slam, but the importance of the Olympics has grown on Williams and Dementieva.

"For me, it's more important to be in the [Olympic] final than the semifinal of the U.S. Open," Dementieva said. "It is the most important tournament."

Said Williams: "Possibly more important because this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. The next time I come here I'll be 24, if I can get to the Olympics again, and obviously there's not too much time to win a medal in your lifetime and it's probably bigger than a Grand Slam."

King was pleased to hear that, and Garrison smiled joking: "I'll bet it's just the pin trading."

Venus Williams also advanced to the women's doubles semifinals, teaming with Serena to beat France's Julie Halard-Decugis and Amelie Mauresmo, 6-3, 6-2.

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