Venus Turns Back Seles

Times Staff Writer

Venus Williams, tennis star and critic, probably had the most accurate, and succinct view, of her unpredictable match against Monica Seles.

Good plays, bad plays and amazing plays, Williams summarized.

When Williams faces Seles, those things have a way of happening, not only in the same set, but in the same game. They managed to bring out a higher level of shot-making from one another, as the No. 2-seeded Williams defeated No. 6 Seles, 7-5, 6-4, in 1 hour 39 minutes at Staples Center.

Friday night's match was something of a tonic for what was been an ailing event, the Home Depot WTA Championships. Though Seles saved seven match points in her three-set victory against Lindsay Davenport in the first round, the quality of play between Seles and Williams was far superior.

And, finally, there was the feel of a crowd attending an event, not merely a few bodies rattling around in an empty hangar. Seles even acknowledged it afterward with a small sigh of relief. An estimated 4,500 were on hand for the Seles-Williams quarterfinal, which was easily the largest crowd for any session.

"It was nice to see that," Seles said. "The first year it's very difficult. They're probably going to have to do a lot more promotions. A lot of my friends here had no idea why I was in town."

Seles said the process will take some time. Having said that, the field is better than most years; the season-ending event has never featured both Serena and Venus Williams in the same year. Serena Williams won the Championships last year in Munich, and Venus has participated only once, reaching the semifinals in 1999. If the sisters stick to their policy of skipping Indian Wells, the next time they appear in Southern California is the summer of 2003.

Matches with the sort of competitive quality displayed by Williams and Seles will help push the tournament's development. Seles, who beat Venus in three sets in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in January, is the only player other than Serena to defeat Venus in a Grand Slam event this year.

The way she opened against Williams, taking a 4-1 lead in the first set, it looked as though Seles might be poised for her second victory against Venus in their 10 meetings. Venus, though, slowly started to find her range and came up with some big shots, and a bit of luck, to tie it, 4-4. She saved four break points in that game, including one net-cord winner.

One game, in particular, stood out as an example of the match's closeness. Williams, serving at 2-3 in the second set, fought off two break points and battled through nine deuces. Seles was able to break serve three times in the match, but was hurt by her own serve, hitting only one ace and double-faulting nine times. Williams had 11 aces and 44 winners and regularly hit her serve faster than 110 mph. "I didn't want to lose," said Williams, who will play No. 5 Kim Clijsters in the semifinals. "I don't know, I'm really used to winning."

Williams has always been a fan of Seles, graciously handling the loss at the Australian Open. But she was more effusive than usual about Seles, rattling off scores of the past when Seles dominated the tour in the early 1990s.

"I remember all those things," Williams said. "She was my favorite player. I was always rooting for her. Of course when we play now, I'm rooting for me."

Now, that famous Seles grunt lives on in the form of Williams. Venus wanted to be like Monica in every way possible ... except for the two-handed forehand.

"I started grunting because I wanted to be like Monica. I never grunted before. Now I can't stop," Williams said, laughing. "I started doing things like her. She was a revolutionary. It always comes around to someone who takes the game to another level, and makes everyone realize, 'Hey, I've got to step it up also.' "

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