NEW YORK -- It was cold on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court at the U.S. Open last night, and it took No. 5 seed Venus Williams, clad in her brief, form-fitting periwinkle and black tennis dress, a set to warm up her strokes and stoke her mind for the relentless Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.
By the time Williams took off her bright yellow warm-up jacket late in the first set, Sanchez-Vicario, the No. 4 seed, was well on her way to winning that first set.
But that was all she would win.
When the warm-up came off, Williams set to work and willed herself to oust the French Open champ from this tournament, 2-6, 6-1, 6-1.
Sanchez-Vicario is the highest-ranked player ever beaten by Williams, who has lost to No. 1 Martina Hingis, No. 2 Jana Novotna and No. 3 Lindsay Davenport in the Australian, French and Wimbledon quarterfinals this year.
Last night's victory moves Williams, last year's runner-up here, into the semifinals for a rematch with the second-seeded Davenport, who holds a 4-1 record against her.
Davenport advanced to her fourth Grand Slam semifinal of the year yesterday, by overpowering No. 13 Amanda Coetzer, 6-0, 6-4.
It was a very impressive performance by Davenport, who is nursing a strained right elbow and had to withdraw from the mixed doubles competition here.
"Just the way she's hitting the ball is intimidating," said Coetzer. "She hits really hard and deep. Points are over pretty quickly. I've been watching a little bit of Venus' matches. I think it's going to be a big test. I think their match is going to be really interesting. I think it's wide-open."
Contending in the other women's semifinal will be Hingis, the Australian Open champion and the defending champion here, and Novotna, the Wimbledon champ.
A lot will be on the line in tomorrow's semifinal matches. Not only are these four trying to win a Grand Slam, but three of them -- Hingis, Novotna and Davenport -- are all in a race for the No. 1 ranking.
If Hingis reaches the final, regardless of the outcome, she will maintain the ranking. If she loses in the semis and Novotna
advanced to the final, then Novotna will overtake Hingis. And if Davenport wins the Open against anyone other than Hingis, she will be No. 1.
In men's day action yesterday, defending champion Patrick Rafter defeated No. 12 Jonas Bjorkman, 6-2, 6-3, 7-5, in an entertaining match between serve-and- volleying doubles partners. Rafter advanced to the semifinals, where he will meet No. 1 seed Pete Sampras.
Sampras kept his drive for 12 Grand Slam titles alive last night by beating No. 9 seed Karol Kucera, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. The other two semifinal opponents will be determined today.
Last night, tennis fans got a good look at Williams and at how far she has come since last year's final and at a woman who already has her eye on the top spot. When Williams was here a year ago, she was a raw talent, impatient to earn a point and primarily content to hit big shots from the baseline.
Against Sanchez-Vicario, she showed great patience. She also showed strength of mind to cut out the mistakes she was making in the first set and she attacked the net with supreme confidence.
"I'm a different player," she said. "I'm more wiser now, I make more intelligent decisions, but last year I played as well as I could and I can't do anything about that now."
She did a lot about a lot of things in this quarterfinal match. Sanchez-Vicario took advantage of every one of Williams' 18 unforced errors in the first set, to keep her on the move and off balance. But once that set was finished, Williams clicked into a different gear.
The errors disappeared and as Sanchez-Vicario showed no desire to leave the baseline and make something happen. Williams did.
"A year ago, I didn't have any dedication to come to the net," Williams said. "I had made camp on the baseline. Recently, I broke camp, because I saw that a lot of the shorter players were serving and volleying. I wondered why I couldn't get myself to the net. I made up my mind to get in more because it's something I have to do."
After this victory, Williams also was relaxed and confident instead of defensive. Often criticized for showing no respect to the veteran players on tour, she was gracious in her remarks about Sanchez-Vicario.
"I've watched her play for a long time," said Williams. "Long before I came on the tennis tour. I know what she does. I know when you go out to play her you are going to have to hit a lot of balls -- a plethora of balls.
"It wasn't that she played badly or that I ran through her. It was that I played a little better."
Men's semifinal matches
Play begins at 11 a.m.
Carlos Moya (10) vs. Magnus Larsson
Play begins at 7: 30 p.m.
Thomas Johansson vs. Mark Philippoussis
Pub Date: 9/10/98