Serena reigns in Open; Younger Williams first black woman to win Slam since Gibson; Hingis falls, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4); 'I've been preparing for this my whole life'


NEW YORK -- Minutes earlier, Serena Williams had seen No. 1 seed Martina Hingis' backhand fly long. She, Serena, not her older, more celebrated sister, Venus, had just beaten Hingis, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) for the U.S. Open women's championship. Serena was staggered.

As the roar of a standing-room-only crowd rose around her, she screamed, laughed and cried and then ran to kiss her mother, Oracene, and hug her father, Richard, both of whom had coached her to this moment.

And now, as she stood, waiting to receive the Open trophy and her check for $750,000, she was still overwhelmed.

"I've won a Grand Slam," she said, softly, to no one in particular. "I've made history -- for once."

Williams, who will turn 18 Sept. 26, became only the second African-American woman to win a Grand Slam tournament. The only other black woman to do it was Althea Gibson, who won titles in the French Open (1956), at Wimbledon (1957) and in the U.S. Open (1957 and 1958).

On the men's tour, the only African-American to win a Grand Slam title was Arthur Ashe, who won three of them: the U.S. Open (1968), Australian Open (1970) and Wimbledon (1975).

"I'm so excited," Serena said. "And I'm proud to have done it. One of Althea Gibson's best friends told me once that she wanted to see another African-American win a Slam before her time is up. I'm so excited I had a chance to accomplish that while she's still alive. It's just really great."

Gibson, 72, lives very reclusively in East Orange, N.J.

Serena looked as if she would power her way to her first Grand Slam title in under an hour. She used her powerful serve to keep Hingis on her heels, and her stunning backhand moved her opponent from side to side in the first set.

Only the day before, Hingis, the world No. 1-ranked player, had been treated similarly by Venus, 19, who was trying to get back to her second U.S. Open final. But Friday, Hingis was able to handle Venus, who had service problems and developed leg cramps late in the three-set match.

Yesterday, it was another story.

Hingis again showed her great ability to compete, but Serena was on her own mission.

"I've been preparing for this my whole life," Serena said. "I was always the one to say, 'I want to win the U.S. Open. I want it.' Venus always wanted Wimbledon. I guess, when she wins Wimbledon, she's going to have the same feeling."

Others had come to this place, to the brink of winning a first Grand Slam title, and others, including Venus, had been unable to make the leap.

But while Serena saw two match points come and go on two unforced errors in the ninth game of the second set, she did not give in.

"I had my chances," said Hingis. "I had a set point. But Serena just played better today. I think, in the end, the women's tennis has been very good at this tournament, especially the last two days. It's just been terrific tennis. And for us, for Serena and Venus and me, there will be many more times to get even."

Hingis was able to force a tie-breaker yesterday, but when Serena got to that point in the match, her confidence soared.

"I never lose tie-breakers," she said. "I can't remember the last time I lost a tie-breaker."

She hasn't lost one this year.

And she didn't lose yesterday.

At 5-3, she was no longer grunting on her power swings, but screaming. And when Hingis hit a backhand top-spin lob long to set up another match point, the stadium crowd joined in.

The atmosphere was electric. Serena turned her back to the court, stooped down for a few seconds and clinched her fist. Regrouping.

She got up, turned and fired. Hingis tried to stay in the match, but her backhand sailed.

"Oh, my God," said Serena, who, at No. 7, is the lowest-seeded woman's player to win this Grand Slam in the Open era. "Wow!"

But she is not the first to have the opportunity to deliver on this dream. Venus made it to the final here in 1997, but lost, 6-0, 6-4, to Hingis. And Zina Garrison, who was the first black woman to make it to a Grand Slam final since Gibson, went to the Wimbledon finals in 1990, but lost to Martina Navratilova.

Yesterday, Serena's victory was celebrated by more than 23,300 fans here, including former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn; Arthur Ashe's widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, and Garrison, who flew in for the match from Houston yesterday and sent Serena flowers and good wishes before the match.

Venus also celebrated her sister's win -- and their semifinal victory in the women's doubles.

"I just didn't feel there was any way she could lose," said Venus, who will play with Serena for the doubles title today after a 7-6 (7-2), 6-3, victory last night.

Serena's victory was also celebrated in Auckland, New Zealand, where President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea were attending a conference.

Shortly after Serena's victory, the President called to congratulate her on her historic feat.

Often in pro sports, these calls are awkward. But Serena didn't seem awed.

"Hi, Serena, this is President Clinton, Congratulations."

"Thank you very much," Serena said. "It's pretty exciting. So, you follow tennis?"

"Yes," said the President.

"I never knew," said Serena. " I'm glad you guys are watching. I hope you were cheering for me. If not, that's okay."

She went on to ask him about the time difference and about Chelsea. She asked Chelsea, a junior at Stanford this fall, about her major and complimented her on being so bright.

By the time Serena was finished, she had an invitation for her and her family to visit the Clintons at the White House and for a personal tour of Stanford from Chelsea, when Serena is there next week for Fed Cup play.

"I didn't think my day could get any better," she told the President. "But then I heard the President wants to call. This is pretty stoked."

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