NEW YORK -- When No. 1 Martina Hingis walked on court for her semifinal match, she already knew she'd have to beat the Williams sisters to win the U.S. Open.
Yesterday, in an incredible match that required mental fortitude, physical stamina and pure heart, Hingis and No. 3 Venus Williams riveted 20,009 fans to their seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium as they waged woman-to-woman combat.
Finally, after 2 hours and 1 minute, Hingis was the last one standing, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.
Now she will face the other half of the sister combo, No. 7 seed Serena Williams, in today's final.
After five hours of rain that delayed the start of yesterday's program, Serena upset Lindsay Davenport, the No. 2 seed and defending champion, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.
As she came off court, the younger sister couldn't resist a little barb at her older sibling.
"OK, I've done my part," she said. "Now it's up to Venus."
When Venus didn't come through, it meant that Richard Williams' first-day prediction wouldn't come true. Williams had said his daughters would meet for a historic U.S. Open final.
But if today's Hingis-Serena Williams match is half as good as the matches played yesterday, and half as competitive as the post-match news conferences, it will be a thriller.
"Hopefully, I gave Martina a good workout," said Venus. "Now it's up to Serena. She's playing for two people now."
Hingis was wearing her biggest smile when she began talking of her semifinal victory and her prospects.
She had survived Venus. Now comes Serena.
"Another one!" she said, almost joyously. "Off the court, there are three of them [Richard, Venus and Serena], against me talking. I cannot win with words. I have to try to win on the court."
But when Hingis was told Serena was already outside practicing, the words came.
"All right," she said spontaneously. "Keep working, get cramps too. Work, work, work."
Everyone knows the Williams sisters are in great physical condition, but yesterday, near the end of her match, Venus had problems with cramping.
Hingis, meanwhile, was reaping the commitment to hard work, to be in condition for the kind of match she had to play yesterday.
She had cruised through the first set, relaxed a little in the second to fall behind 5-1, before coming back to lose it 6-4, and then she had enough strength to focus again in the third.
Unlike Serena, who overcame every obstacle against Davenport, including five break points in the third set that would have gotten that match back on serve, Venus faltered.
"I said before the match, whoever serves well at the end would win," Hingis said. "I think her game is more dependent on how she serves. At the end, we just kept breaking each other. And then, after I break her in that last time, it's like yeah!"
Venus had gotten up 2-1 and 3-2 in the third set, but then Hingis made a lasting move. She broke to get even at 3, held at 4-3 and then, in the next game, was happy to collect three straight points that some may have laid at the altar of luck.
Venus was called for a foot-fault on her second serve to make it 15-30. On the next point, a net cord pushed the ball back to her side of the net to give Hingis break point, and then Venus double faulted into the bottom of the net.
"If it all came down to luck, I'd lay in bed in the morning," said Venus. "Everything that comes, comes for a reason. Martina didn't win because of luck. Luck doesn't just come and land on you.
"Unfortunately I was unable to close it out. If I had taken my opportunities, I wouldn't have been out there later cramping, feeling fatigued and sick."
Still, the shot that brought Hingis to match point seemed destined. She was running out of legs, but she sprinted to the opposite side of the court, her racket stretched as far as it could go, and then, Jimmy Connors-like, made contact. The ball sailed around the net post and landed in the deepest corner of the opposite court.
"It was unbelievable, I was so lucky," Hingis said. "I put out my racket and I didn't know what would happen. I knew I would make it to the ball, but I didn't know where I was going to hit it."
In the earlier match, the end also came down to a third set in which Serena raised her game and made Davenport look slow and awkward, something she hasn't looked in years.
And when the pressure was mounting in that final set, it was Davenport who blinked first. With it even at 3-3, Serena got to break point on Davenport's serve and got a little lucky.
She hit a forehand that appeared to be falling short of the net, but it barely cleared and dropped in. Davenport, fooled a little by the floating ball, was late starting toward the net. She was forced to dive for her shot and her rushed backhand flipped the ball up and long and Serena had a 4-3 lead.
In the next game, they staged a war. Davenport had five break points that could have gotten her back on serve, but Serena wouldn't surrender.
By the time Serena got to her third game-point opportunity, they were both staggering -- out of step, out of energy but not out of heart.
Serena, stumbling, stretched out her backhand to make a shot that just cleared the net. Davenport scrambled in, but couldn't make the volley.
"A few points would have probably made the difference in the third set," Davenport said. "I had a game point the game I was broken in. Sometimes, if those just go the other way, maybe it would have been a different story. But she was hitting the ball really hard and deep. Every break point I had, she just hit a huge serve."
The huge serve is something Venus couldn't find today. Tomorrow, if Serena can, it could make a difference.
"Serena knows what she's doing," said Venus. "Hopefully, she'll do better than I did two years ago in the final against Martina. I think she will. I think she has more weapons to work with now than I did then."
Hingis, 18, knows it will be a battle. She is 3-2 against Serena, 17, and Serena won their last meeting.
"I was so far never able to beat both of them at the same tournament," said Hingis. "But maybe there is a first time. I have no expectations. Tomorrow, whoever is more patient, more calm, is going to win, I guess."
Hingis vs. S. Williams
Head-to-head records for the women's finalists at the U.S. Open:
vs. Serena Williams(7), Hingis leads 3-2
Lipton, hard surface, quarterfinal, Hingis, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6. Los Angeles, hard, quarterfinal, Hingis, 6-4, 6-1.
Lipton, hard, semifinal, Williams, 6-4, 7-6.
Italian Open, clay, quarterfinal, Hingis, 6-2, 6-2.
Los Angeles, hard, semifinal, Williams, 6-3, 7-5.