NEW YORK -- This afternoon, on the brand-new Arthur Ashe Stadium court, Venus Williams, 17 and the first African-American in the U.S. Open women's final since Althea Gibson 39 years ago, will try to extend her history-making performance against world No. 1 Martina Hingis.
"I've never been the type of person to be scared or intimidated [by another player]," said Williams, her distinctive beaded hair clacking with every nod of her head. "I can't let that hold me back. I won't. This is a chance of a lifetime, a tournament of a lifetime. I've done well, and I won't be angry if I don't win. But I'm not going to go out there and be afraid, because fear holds you back. I won't let it happen."
Those were brave words from a young woman who has lost twice and easily to Hingis this year. And against Hingis here, she meets an equally determined opponent.
Hingis, a 16-year-old veteran who already has won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, has lost only two matches this year and is attempting to join Steffi Graf, Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Monica Seles as the only women to win at least three Grand Slams in one season.
But this Williams is not the same one who was playing as late as June and lost in the first round at Wimbledon.
This Williams has stood up to the glare of the New York lights, to media pressure and to the voiced animosity of other players over the amount of attention she has received and over a perception that she is anti-social.
But through it all, she has shown a two-sided personality -- one childish and sweet, the other rude and condescending.
One of the few to speak out in Williams' defense has been Baltimorean Pam Shriver, who was the last women's player to wind up in the Open final in her debut, in 1978.
Unlike Williams, Shriver arrived like a comet that year. She came on tour in January and nine months later came here as the 16th seed. She lost in the final to Chris Evert.
"It's interesting," Shriver said. "It's three years this October since Venus played her first tournament, yet this is her first Grand Slam tournament year. In hindsight, there's nothing wrong with either route. I think the criticism she's taken for not playing enough is ironic."
It is apparent that her increased play this year (10 tournaments) has improved Williams' game rapidly. But the criticism is ironic because the primary rap on the women's game has been that the players come on the tour too young, play too much and are gone too soon.
Williams turned pro just before the WTA Tour rule that restricts the number of tournaments a girl can play before she is 16 went into effect. Despite that, Williams has played just 19 tournaments over 36 months because her parents/coaches, Robert and Oracene, wanted her to have a life outside tennis.
Shriver, who didn't play a full schedule until she was 18, points out that Williams, for whatever reason, is the first player to arrive on the scene having played a part-time schedule since the rule went into effect.
"No one should criticize, especially at this point," Shriver said. "I don't think it's appropriate."
Shriver, who presented Williams and her sister, Serena, at her charity tennis event in Baltimore four years ago in a doubles match against Cal and Bill Ripken, also said she's "disgusted" by the criticism that the sisters are anti-social in the locker room.
She remembered how difficult it was to blend in with the established players and knows how difficult it continues to be to blend into the locker-room scene. She said it is not easy for any player coming on tour to feel comfortable in the very competitive atmosphere.
Yesterday, Williams' father, Richard, charged that the bumping incident involving his daughter and Irina Spirlea in their semifinal match was racially motivated. He called Spirlea a "big, tall, white turkey."
Shriver said she doesn't think Williams' developing game is yet good enough to beat Hingis, but no matter what happens today, tennis has a new prodigy.
When Williams is asked about the two matches she lost to Hingis, she said that in the first one, at the Lipton Championships, where Hingis won, 6-4, 6-2, she didn't play well and Hingis did. In the second, in San Diego, where Hingis won, 6-2, 6-1, Williams said she gave it away.
"It was just giving, giving, giving," she said. "It was her match to take. I don't blame her for taking it if I was going to give it. I've learned a lot of things in this Open. I've learned to put more balls in play, not to go for winners so prematurely, not to rush things. Things are different. I'm going to be ready."
Hingis, of course, will be ready too, but she is not taking anything for granted.
"I have never lost to Venus," Hingis said. "But she is improved very much, especially in this tournament. She got better and better each match; you could see, especially mentally.
"She thinks, 'I can make it.' That's very important. I think it could be hard because Venus has nothing to lose. She thinks she can beat everyone in the world. I don't know. I'll love to see later on, who is going to be the better one."
Today, the stadium will be packed with tennis fans who want to see the same thing.
Today's title matches
Women: Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, vs. Venus Williams, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Time: 2 p.m., approximately
Men: Patrick Rafter (13), Australia, vs. Greg Rusedski, Great Britain.
Time: 4 p.m., approximately
TV: Chs. 13, 9 both matches
Pub Date: 9/07/97