Open falls in Venus' orbit


NEW YORK - The women's championship trophy for the U.S. Open is not changing residences.

It will remain on the Florida estate of Venus and Serena Williams. One year after watching her little sister win the family's first major professional title here last year at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Venus Williams took the glittering silver hardware home to Palm Beach Gardens after a 6-4, 7-5 victory last night over Lindsay Davenport.

Overcoming a shaky start in which she lost four of the first five games, Williams used her blazing speed and a blistering, if somewhat erratic, serve to win five straight games and 21 of 31 points. Each time Davenport tried to climb back into the match in the second set, Williams pounded serves and ground strokes to stay in control.

Finally, after setting up match point by running down two deep returns with wicked backhands, Williams let her opponent's backhand sail over the baseline. Reminiscent of her celebration at this year's Wimbledon, where she beat Davenport for her first major championship, Williams danced sideways to the net, arms reaching for the heavens.

She was later joined on the court by her father and coach, Richard, who did his own victory dance and patted his 20-year-old daughter on the back. Though still ranked behind both Martina Hingis, whom she beat in a dramatic three-set semifinal comeback Friday, as well as Davenport due to a six-month absence, Williams has become the force of the women's tour.

It was the 26th straight match Williams has won - the longest streak by any female player this year. It marked the fourth tournament she has won since Wimbledon and the 14th of her four-year career. The victory was worth $800,000 to Williams, pushing her career earnings over $6 million.

Asked if she felt as if she's the best female player in the game, Williams said, "Oh yeah, I feel like I'm the best player. I've always felt I was the best player. It's all about attitude, and taking that attitude on the court. It's paid off. I wasn't playing too well at the beginning of the two weeks, but in the end I did the right things at the right time."

Said Davenport, 24, "She's definitely the No. 1 player right now. She's played like it the last few months. I mean, she hasn't lost a match since the French Open. That's too good. You just have to congratulate her, just try to keep working on your game. Right now, she's player better than anybody."

Not bad for a player many considered the second best in her own family a year ago and was sidelined from November to early May because of tendinitis in her wrists. After losing to Hingis in last year's Open semifinals - preventing a matchup against her then 17-year old sister - Williams virtually disappeared.

She went back to school and, because of her injuries, didn't play until this spring. Now, having become the first African-American woman since Althea Gibson to win Wimbledon and only the seventh player in the open era to have won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back, Williams seems satisfied but not completely overjoyed.

"It honestly doesn't feel as exciting as I thought it would," Williams said. "Because you think that things will make you happy, but if you're happy already, it doesn't make a difference. To be successful in the way I am is important. But I think you feel it more when you're unsuccessful, like last year when I wasn't successful. It's great to win, but there are a lot more things that are more important."

While her victory had little of the drama of her semifinal match Friday against Hingis, when she came back from a 5-3 deficit in the third set, Williams didn't seem to mind. She came out as flat against Davenport as her sister Serena had against the 6-foot-2 Californian in Wednesday night's quarterfinal.

Mindful that Davenport is a terrific front-runner who rarely loses a match at a major after winning the first set, Williams stormed back. She broke Davenport to get back to 2-4 in the first set, fought off one break point in the next game and then broke Davenport again to even the set.

"She was playing at a high level, but I think I was giving her exactly what she wanted," Williams said. "I sat down at 4-1 and I thought about it. I said, 'I can't feed her like this.' I was just giving her the spoon, so I had to change it up."

Williams went ahead for good on her next service game, crushing an ace to go up 40-30 and a service winner that barely ticked Davenport's racket to go ahead 5-4. Her serve wasn't the only thing Williams had crushed. It was apparent from her body language that Davenport's psyche was shattered.

Davenport lost the first two points of the fourth game and was broken again.

"You never know quite what to do, if you should move onto the court or wait for a hard shot back," said Davenport, who was going after her fourth Grand Slam title and her second Open championship. "It's tough to put balls back against her. You obviously have to go for more on your shots. If I would have put more first serves in play, and not just given her the breaks back, it might have been a different story."

Part of Williams' post-match responsibilities included a live television interview with President Clinton, who watched much of the men's semifinals before leaving for his home in nearby Chappaqua, N.Y., during the 1 1/2 -hour rain delay that preceded the start of the women's final. Williams had one question for the president.

"Can you lower my tax bracket?" she asked.

Said Clinton, "I'm working on it."

It might be as tough for Williams to get the No. 1 ranking as joining a lower tax bracket. Since the computer rankings are based on the past year, and this was just her eighth tournament of the year, Williams still has a bit of work to do to pass Davenport and Hingis.

"Being No. 1 is definitely one of my goals," Williams said. "I've done my best, I really have. It seems like I can't move forward, but I know I will. It's just a matter of time."

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