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Williams Does Number on Rankings and Seles

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The numbers, indeed, do lie.

How else can you explain Venus Williams winning a tournament and losing ground in the points race? After the second-seeded Williams dominated Monica Seles in the Acura Classic, winning Sunday’s 68-minute final, 6-2, 6-3, it seemed ludicrous that Williams would fall from No. 3 in the world to No. 4 when the latest WTA rankings were released today.

The numbers do lie, Part II.

Last year, Williams was in the middle of a six-tournament, 35-match winning streak when she won the title at La Costa. This year the Acura championship was her fourth title of the year, and she is on a five-match win streak. Those numbers would suggest she played better in 2000 than 2001.

Wrong, again.

Williams 2001 is a better vintage than Williams 2000. Last year, she pulled out a three-set victory over Seles in the final here, getting by on sheer willpower. Sunday, it was sheer power at La Costa Resort & Spa that earned Williams $125,000 and a new car for the title. She had 37 winners to 11 for Seles.

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Seles, seeded seventh, has been playing her best tennis in years--coming off consecutive victories over Australian and French Open champion Jennifer Capriati and No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis--but the 27-year-old was left grabbing air against Williams.

Actually, Seles’ racket was finding more air than the ball when she tried to return serve. Williams had 13 aces, nine in the second set, and finished the match with two second-serve aces. She double-faulted eight times but four of those were in the opening game.

Seles called the failure to capitalize on Williams’ early shakiness “an opportunity let go.” Williams saved three break points in the first game and did not drop a point on her serve the rest of the set.

“She’s a lot more consistent, in this final and this week, in terms of her groundstrokes, and probably the serve,” Seles said. “She didn’t have as many lapses--besides that first game--as she did last year when she let me back in the match.”

A year ago, Williams was playing better than anyone on the tour and still could not make a serious move at No. 1. That was, in part, because of her light schedule. In 2001, this is her 10th tournament, whereas Hingis has played 15.

Williams won’t be shifting to a Hingis-like schedule, however.

“It seems like I’m more prone to injuries than she is, and also I just can’t do that to myself,” she said.

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The quirks of the ranking system amused, rather than annoyed, Williams. Hingis actually increased her lead because she did better at this tournament this year than in 2000, when she lost to Amy Frazier in the quarterfinals. This year she reached the semifinals before falling to Seles.

“I’m really not that far off from being No. 2,” Williams said. “I’m not that far, I guess, from being No. 1. It’s quite close. If anything, it makes it more competitive. Myself, and Lindsay [Davenport] and Capriati, we’re all fighting for that No. 2 position. It makes it more motivating.”

Even though she would benefit from a revision in the rankings, Williams does not advocate changing to the ATP’s Champions Race format, which is based on results from the current year.

“Once you can understand it, it’s not a bad idea, but I like our ranking system maybe more than that one,” Williams said. “It’s a good idea, but it’s a little strange. . . . It’s all confusing for the spectator and even sometimes for the player. You can’t keep changing the ranking systems. As long as I can play well, and win a few Grand Slams, if I’m ranked No. 10, that’s OK.”

Why worry about a bizarre system anyway?

Williams is considered the best player on the tour, followed by Capriati. Williams’ level of dominance was so complete that Seles needed to seize the smallest of openings. A questionable call on the baseline hurt Seles when she was broken in the sixth game of the first set.

But, on her own serve, Williams had little difficulty after the first game. After failing to convert any of the three break points in the first game, Seles did not get another chance until Williams was leading, 6-2, 4-0. She broke Williams’ serve, but by then it was almost too late.

“Venus just played better today,” said Seles, who recently returned to the game after missing Wimbledon and the French Open because of a stress fracture in her right foot.

“She was serving very well and that put a lot of pressure on my serve. My serve kind of went a little bit haywire today.”

The Williams momentum was too much for Seles. Williams’ fastest serve Sunday was a 118-mph winner in the first set.

“When she starts going for it, it’s really difficult to stay with her because the points are very quick,” Seles said.

And those numbers tell the truth.

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