NEW YORK - No. 2 Venus Williams continued her cool approach to the U.S. Open yesterday and dug her way out of a love-40 hole in the final game of the third set against a very determined Amelie Mauresmo.
Williams lowered her eyelids in concentration. She settled into position and launched a 116-mph ace. It was the first of three huge serves that brought the game back to deuce. A service winner followed and then a big second serve that Mauresmo couldn't handle and, just like that, Williams was into the U.S. Open final with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory.
There, she will defend her title against her sister, Serena.
"I thought I had a pretty good chance to break her," said Mauresmo. "I broke her a few times in that match, so I thought it was makeable. But then she served unbelievably, and there was nothing I could do."
It was a very similar story for No. 4 Lindsay Davenport as she tried to force a third set against No. 1 Serena Williams. Davenport built a 5-2 lead in the second set and seemed on her way to evening the match, when Serena lifted her game to get back on serve and then fought off three break/set points on her own serve to win, 6-3, 7-5.
Despite the loss, Davenport said she feels extremely lucky to be playing in the same era with the Williamses.
"I'm very fortunate - to be playing with them and to be playing at the top of my game with them," said Davenport. "It's an incredible time. I've played through probably two different eras. I played a little bit with [Martina] Navratilova, a lot with [Steffi] Graf and [Monica] Seles.
"I can tell you, it's a different ballgame now. Much more athletic. Much harder balls. Much better placement on serves. You have to get better or you're going to fall in the rankings and not be competitive anymore."
This final will be the fourth in five Grand Slams in which the Williams sisters will contend for a major championship. If Venus successfully defends, she will be the first woman to win three straight Open titles since Chris Evert in 1975, 1976 and 1977. Evert went on to win again in 1978 to share the all-time record with Helen Jacobs (1932-1935).
Also, if Venus wins, she will regain the No. 1 ranking. If Serena wins, she will retain it.
The Williams sisters will face off in a prime-time match at 8:30 p.m. Before their confrontation, Hall of Famers John McEnroe and Boris Becker will play a "Challenge Match," created for CBS, at 7 p.m.
Yesterday was an amazing day in women's tennis. The Williams sisters have established themselves as the best in the game, and every match they play against other competitors sets up as a prize fight. The entire women's tour watches to see if someone, anyone, can stop the Williamses from reaching the final round of a major.
No. 14 Chanda Rubin had Venus Williams on the ropes in their quarterfinal match but couldn't throw the knockout punch. Yesterday, the same situation developed for Mauresmo.
Williams was off her game and troubled by a blister in the palm of her right hand, her racket hand. Forehands were extremely hard for her to handle. And yet, she dug deep to hold off the Frenchwoman.
"I just didn't want to let that love-40 game go," said Venus. "I was really relaxed at that point. I was never really nervous throughout the whole match. I just wasn't able to keep my errors down."
Until it mattered. Until she simply needed to be great.
"I don't know. It was four great first serves to get to match point and then, finally, a second," she said. "I think she just went for broke and didn't come up with it the last point."
Serena, meanwhile, had not faced a strong challenge until yesterday, when Davenport, in only her fifth tournament since returning from knee surgery, built second-set opportunities but could not find the goods, either, to force into a third set.
Serena, like her sister, came up with the overpowering serves when needed.
"I was disappointed, but looking back, you have to say she was too good on those three points," said Davenport, referring to three break-point chances in the final game that Serena saved. "Her serve is really fantastic. But she threw in a lot of errors. I thought I had some chances, and I could have won that second set. I had my chances."
The message was clear. If anyone is going to beat either of the Williams sisters, she will have to play better than good. She'll have to play extraordinary tennis.
"I think seeing the two of them back in the Grand Slam final is the most amazing thing in sports, almost," said Davenport. "I mean, it's amazing. I mean, could you imagine Tiger Woods challenging a sibling to go head-to-head for all the majors? And in an individual sport, no less. They don't have teammates to help them along."
The two sisters are similar in athletic talent, and both love the big shots. But, as Davenport said, "They are two different players, and have both learned to be at the top."
How will they play tonight? No one seems to know. Davenport was at a loss to pick a winner. Venus allowed their matches have suffered from "too much love." Mauresmo thinks Serena has the edge, "but they're sisters - anything can happen."
Only Serena seemed to have an answer.
"This is for all the marbles," she said. "This is for the championship, the points, a Grand Slam. So it's definitely something that we're just really fighting for. It's going to be a slugfest."
It's what everyone is hoping for.