NEW YORK -- Women's tennis has never seen the likes of this. Raw emotion, chest bumping, a raucous crowd, stupid shots, brilliant shots and a 17-year-old girl driving both her
opponent and the crowd crazy at Arthur Ashe Stadium on a sunny afternoon in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
Venus Williams, the African-American sensation, fought off a bumping incident on a change-over in the middle of the second set, stood up under No. 11 seed Irina Spirlea's self-inspiring shouts, won a war of intimidating all-court games and fought off two Spirlea match points, for a 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (9-7) victory.
The performance makes her the first unseeded women's finalist in Open history and the lowest ranked female player, at No. 66, to make a Grand Slam final since No. 68-ranked Barbara Jordan won the 1979 Australian Open.
Her opponent in tomorrow's final will be world No. 1 Martina Hingis. Together, Hingis at 16 years and 11 months and Williams, 17 years, three months, combine to be the two youngest Grand Slam finalists in Open-era history.
The men's Open finalist will be determined today when Jonas Bjorkman and Greg Rusedski pair off in the first of two semifinals and No. 2 seed Michael Chang faces No. 13 Patrick Rafter.
"Maybe now, a fraction of the talk will stop," Williams said, referring to the criticism she has taken for her high self-confidence and for all the publicity she had received before actually proving herself on the women's pro tour.
Williams is playing in only her ninth pro tournament and third Grand Slam tournament. Before the Open, she had not made it past the second round at either the French Open or Wimbledon.
"In the past, I really didn't worry about what others thought," LTC Williams said. "I only worried about what I thought, what my family thought. But I definitely thought there would be a time when others would see that what I believed I could do I could do."
Everyone saw Williams yesterday. It was not the under control, beautifully planned game of Hingis, who moved into tomorrow's final with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over No. 6 Lindsay Davenport. Hingis simply carved up Davenport in a match that was close to a love-fest compared to the Williams-Spirlea match, as the two shared numerous laughs over a series of great points.
In this second semifinal of the day, Williams used her 6-foot-2 body and wing span, her power game, her speed and her fearlessness to put Spirlea under attack at every opportunity. And Spirlea, a fiery Romanian, refused to be intimidated by anyone or anything.
After Spirlea failed to cash a set point in the 12th game of the first set and then lost the ensuing tie-breaker, 7-5, she returned to her court-side chair and seemingly made an obscene gesture to the crowd that was going crazy for Williams.
Later in the second set, a game after Spirlea had made four straight unforced errors to allow Williams back on serve at 3-3, the two of them collided at the net on the next change over at 4-3.
It was hard to tell who ran into who, hard to tell if it was an accident or an intentional confrontation brought on by one or the other.
Later, Williams would say it was an accident, that neither had been paying attention and that it was no big deal.
"I wasn't hurt, it wasn't like a football tackle or anything," Williams said.
But to Spirlea, it was something else.
"Through the match, every time we change, I am the one who turns to let her pass," Spirlea said. "So that time, I decide I'm not going to move. I mean, she's never trying to turn. She thinks she's the [expletive] Venus Williams. It's not like we are enemies. It's not like I expect her to say 'Hi!' on court. But we are not animals. At least turn at the changeover or something, because it can be the same time you cross the court. I turn, but she just walks. I wanted to see if she'd turn. She didn't."
It sounded petulant. It sounded like a poor loser, especially so, when Spirlea was asked what impressed her about Williams' game.
"Do I have to answer that?" she said. "I'm not going to answer. I don't want to say something bad. Everything that's coming out of me is like against her. I cannot say she impressed me this, this, or that. No. I have to think about it. And, yeah, I have bad thoughts about her game. Why not?"
Though William's game was not pretty, it was honest. And for the first time, when it was over, she really let go with her emotions.
Everyone has seen her pogo-stick like celebration after other wins here. But usually, after the TV cameras are gone, and she arrives at her post-match interview, she has become so composed that she has at times been dismissive.
Yesterday, that was not the case. Yesterday, she seemed just a genuinely happy young woman who had earned her way to her first Grand Slam final. But yesterday, she seemed different from the moment she started winning points. Yes, there were nerves. On both sides, as each struggled with shot choices under the pressure of their first Grand Slam semifinal appearance. But despite Spirlea's more extensive experience, it seemed to be Williams who kept the best focus.
"A lot of times in the past, if I won a point or a game, I would start smiling," Williams said. "I would kind of get unfocused. I had to quit the smiling for this moment. Maybe in the future I can start doing that some more Now, I keep my straight face."
Even between changeovers, she kept her mind on the match, picking up a small notebook in which she had written notes to remind her to bend her knees and get under the ball.
"Little things like that," she said. "Little reminders. Little things that just keep you in the match."
When Williams found herself facing two match points in the tie-breaker, she stood at the baseline and considered her plight.
"I was thinking about going home," she said. "And then I said, 'This is not the right thing, Venus.' I had to hold strong. I had to push the bad thoughts out of the way. 'Venus, this isn't right. It's not over. She has to win a point to get the match.' "
Williams fought off the first Spirlea match point at 4-6, with a beautiful backhand down the line, and avoided the next at 5-6, when Spirlea bounced her own backhand into the net. Four points later, after Spirlea herself had saved one match point, and with fans shouting, "You go girl!", Williams drilled a shot deep to Spirlea's backhand. The No. 11 seed failed to follow through with her backhand and sliced it just wide, setting off Williams' joyous victory celebration.
As Spirlea packed her bag quickly and left, Williams continued to scream her joy. Eventually, she reached into her racket bag, pulled out a pen and began signing autographs. Then, as if that wasn't enough, she stopped, and began taking beads from the 1,800 that bind her hair and handed them one by one to the crowd of black, white and Asian fans who hung wildly over the railings.
"I'm so happy," she said, flashing a huge smile once more. "I am just so happy."
NOTES: The men's double final was won in straight sets by the No. 4-seeded team of Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Daniel Vacek over No. 11 Nicklas Kulti and Jonas Bjorkman, 7-6 (10-8), 6-3.
+ Men's doubles, championship
Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Daniel Vacek (4), def. Jonas Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti, (11), 7-6 (10-8), 6-3.
Women's singles, semifinals
Martina Hingis (1) def. Lindsay Davenport (6), 6-2, 6-4. Venus Williams def. Irina Spirlea (11), 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (9-7).
Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva (1) def. Nicole Arendt and Manon Bollegraf (4), 3-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.
Pub Date: 9/06/97