A Wild West mood prevailed at the Lipton Championships in Key
Biscayne, Fla., last week. The racket with which Pete Sampras
had menaced the ATP Tour for five years was shot out of his hand
in the third round, and by Monday, Sampras had lost his top
ranking. The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, each took aim
at the women's No. 1, Martina Hingis, and Venus brought her
down. Anna Kournikova dispatched four Top 10 opponents before
losing to Venus in the final.
When was tennis this wide open? Venus Williams, who at this time
last year was playing in only her 10th professional tournament,
may have learned Hingis's weakness. Kournikova, at 16, is poised
to contend for a Grand Slam title. Andre Agassi is back in the
picture after slipping to No. 141 last year, and Marcelo Rios,
who trounced Agassi in the Lipton final, stands atop the tennis
world, diminutive and unsmiling.
In one week the sport was turned upside down and inside out.
"When Venus is 19, her average serve is going to be 130 miles an
hour," the 17-year-old's father and coach, Richard Williams,
predicted last week. "When Venus is 20? And her whole body fills
in? And she's playing serve-and-volley? Boy, I'm going to feel
sorry for those other girls."
He is exaggerating, for sure--130 mph approaches the high end
for the likes of Sampras--but the warning should be taken
seriously. While winning the Lipton, known in America as the
fifth Grand Slam, Venus Williams produced serves of up to 122
mph, the second fastest in the history of the women's tour. That
topped by a dozen miles per hour the tournament's next-fastest
serve by a woman, which was hit by 16-year-old Serena Williams.
Of the 96 players entered on the men's side, perhaps 15 served
faster than Venus.
Of course, Venus was also plopping in second serves of less than
60 mph. Richard Williams expects that that and many other
aspects of her game will only improve as she matures physically.
"Venus grew too fast," he said last Thursday. "She grew so fast,
the muscle around her left knee hasn't filled in with the bone.
When she hugged me after beating Hingis, she said, 'My knee is
really hurting me, Daddy. I have to go see the trainer.'"
Since their third-round meeting in this tournament last year,
won by Hingis on her way to the No. 1 ranking, Venus has made
huge strides. Last Thursday, when they met in the semifinals,
Venus was ranked No. 11, up 100 places from a year ago. Their
match came just a couple of days after Hingis had survived two
match points in a three-set victory over the younger Williams
sister. "Serena gave me one pointer that really helped me, which
I will not disclose to y'all for fear that it will appear in the
papers and over television," Venus told reporters, laughing,
after she defeated Hingis 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 and rose to No. 10.
"'Go out and kick butt,'" Richard Williams said. "That was what
she told her."
Venus did just that, using a mix of fastball and changeup serves
and searing ground strokes to win nine of the first 11 games in
the match. Against another opponent Hingis might have thrown a
little tantrum, or even her racket, in frustration. But she
seemed to sense a sea change in her rivalry with Venus and
appeared desperate that her opponent not recognize it. So Hingis
laughed as winners thumped against the wall behind her, and she
behaved as if all were well even as her ground strokes overshot
Late in the match Hingis asked to be excused to use the
bathroom. Though she is three months younger than Venus, Hingis
knows tricks that often take champions years to learn. Against
Serena, Hingis had turned the momentum her way in the third set
by requesting medical attention for leg cramps. But unlike
Serena, Venus didn't blink, and she closed out the match.
Afterward Hingis explained her defeat by claiming that she was
tired. In fact, she'd had the previous day off and hadn't played
the week before arriving at Key Biscayne.
"The pressure of being Number 1 has drained the living hell out
of Hingis," Richard Williams said. "I've told Venus, 'Nineteen
ninety-eight is your year to take the Number 1 spot.' But, as
sad as this sounds, I kind of hope she doesn't take it this
year. These girls, when they become Number 1, they look older,
they act older, they get tired fast. It's the pressure."
There are, of course, other factors. But given the frequent
injuries of Steffi Graf and the inconsistency of Monica Seles,
who has not recovered emotionally from her stabbing five years
ago and is now nursing her terminally ill father, control of
women's tennis has been seized by a new generation. In the
bottom half of the Lipton draw, Kournikova feasted on the
vulnerable and the old. She began with a quick victory over
15-year-old Mirjana Lucic, of Croatia, also thought to be a
future star, then went on safari among Top 10 players--hunting
down No. 4 Seles, No. 9 Conchita Martinez, No. 2 Lindsay
Davenport and No. 8 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario--to reach her first
Against Venus on Saturday, Kournikova dominated the opening set
and then flamed out, losing 2-6, 6-4, 6-1. Williams thus earned
her second career title--indeed, her second within the month,
after a victory at the IGA Tennis Classic in Oklahoma City on
March 1. If she goes on to win a Grand Slam event this year, she
will probably harken back not to her victory over Kournikova but
to her win over Hingis.
"She isn't as strong as I am," Williams said of Hingis. "A lot
of times the strong person doesn't have to think as much as the
next person. When I learn to [think more], I'm going to become a
much better player."
In the meantime Williams is developing into that rare woman
player with whom the men can identify. "I think she's the best
athlete the women's game has seen so far," said Agassi. "Now
it's a matter of how she puts it all together. She's going to
beat 99 percent of the girls because of the athlete she is."
"I don't know why they're talking about Rios and Sampras,"
Agassi told the Lipton crowd last Friday night after he won his
semifinal over Alex Corretja in straight sets. "At the end of
the year, I'm going to be ranked Number 1."
Agassi refused to call his performance this year--he had a 24-3
record going into the Lipton--a comeback, pointing out that he
never stopped playing tennis. He did stop playing it well, which
he said happened because he lost interest in the game after
being beaten in the 1995 U.S. Open final by Sampras. Along with
his interest, Agassi's ranking went south, falling from No. 2 in
1995 to No. 8 the next year to that dismal 141 last November.
"You can't make yourself want something that you're not really
wanting," he said last week. During his doldrums Agassi enjoyed
himself more off the court than on it, spending time with
friends and family, including Brooke Shields, whom he married
last April. Still, he kept showing up at tournaments, winning
just 12 of 24 matches last year and losing in the first round
eight times. "I was suffering through what I would consider
nothing short of an embarrassment," Agassi said.
By November he had promised to rededicate himself to the game.
He entered a pair of lowly satellite tournaments, losing a final
in Las Vegas and winning an event in Burbank. He wasn't trying
to prove to himself how low he had sunk. "I just needed the
matches," he said. Agassi had doubts--he was 27, old age for
many great players--but he knew that he had recovered from
slumps and from wasted opportunities early in his career, as
well as from a wrist injury in 1993. By Sunday afternoon, when
he played the fifth Lipton final of his career, he had won two
tournaments this year, and his match record in '98 was equaled
only by that of Rios.
As the two players went at each other, Rios looked like a
distant relative of Agassi's. Rios had long hair, like the old
Agassi. He played from far behind the baseline, the way Agassi
does. His clothes were a variation of white and black, as
Agassi's often have been. The two finalists even wore the same
brand of shoe.
As the match wore on in the glare of the Florida sun, Agassi had
trouble seeing the ball. He would toss it up on his serve and be
blinded. A sizzling moment later the ball would be returned to
him unconventionally, unpredictably, by the 5'9" Rios. Agassi,
who's two inches taller, won three Grand Slam titles and rose to
No. 1 in the world by frustrating taller, more imposing
opponents, yet here he was being uprooted by an updated version
of the player he once was.
Agassi is more explosive than Rios from the baseline, but the
Chilean uses a greater variety of weapons. Certainly, being
lefthanded is to Rios's benefit. "If he were righthanded, he
wouldn't even be close to being the same player," his coach,
Larry Stefanki, said last week. Agassi, who had never played
Rios before, could read neither the Chilean's serve nor his
As Rios hammered out a 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 victory, he became more
like Agassi than ever. He leapfrogged from No. 3 to No. 1, where
he is certain to be considered unworthy. Sampras, possibly the
greatest player of all time, is being replaced by a 22-year-old
who has yet to win a Grand Slam title. (In Rios's only Slam
final, at this year's Australian Open, he was beaten soundly by
Petr Korda.) When Agassi was Rios's age, he took grief for
having become rich and famous without a major victory to his name.
Rios is the shortest of the 14 No. 1 players whose names have
been spit out by the ATP Tour computer in the last 25 years. He
is also the first South American No. 1, and within minutes of
his Lipton win he had broken all records held by Ivan Lendl as
the least happy No. 1. "It's, like, really, really good--really
great," Rios said unenthusiastically of his new ranking. As he
and Agassi posed together, it was hard to tell who had lost.
Sampras, who was No. 1 for 102 straight weeks before the Lipton,
will reclaim the top ranking if he reaches the semifinals at the
Salem Open in Hong Kong in two weeks. But while he has earned
every benefit of the doubt, he seems to lack inspiration after
five years at the top. And looming at the end of May is the
tournament that Sampras, even at his most powerful, has never
conquered: the French Open, at which Rios will surely be a
favorite on the hospitable red clay.
Wimbledon, three weeks later, might give Sampras a second wind.
As for Hingis, it would be foolish to claim that a 17-year-old
with four Grand Slam singles titles is facing a career crisis.
Yet for a while last week, the sure things no longer were
certain, and the future of tennis seemed open to more
possibilities than could have been imagined a couple of years
ago. On Sunday the stadium's upper tiers were ringed with
hundreds of Chileans who had flown north to root for their
countryman. They sang as American fans do not, and yet, as their
words fell down on Agassi, they must have sounded familiar.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES HAIR APPARENT Rios succeeded Sampras by chopping down foes with sharp ground strokes. [Marcelo Rios in match]
COLOR PHOTO: CARYN LEVY VENUS RISING...AND RISING Williams used her power and growing court smarts to vanquish Hingis and Kournikova and climb into the women's Top 10. [Venus Williams in match]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [Patricia Larrain kissing Marcelo Rios]
ROOM AT THE TOP
When Pete Sampras lost his No. 1 ranking to Marcelo Rios (above,
kissing girlfriend Patricia Larrain) this week, he had held the
top spot for 102 consecutive weeks and a total of 218 weeks.
Here are the players who have been No. 1 since the man who held
that ranking the longest, Ivan Lendl (270 weeks), was knocked
off the summit in August 1990.
FIRST MOST CONSECUTIVE TOTAL WEEKS
RANKED NO. 1 WEEKS NO. 1 NO. 1
Stefan Edberg Aug. 13, 1990 24 72
Boris Becker Jan. 28, 1991 9 12
Jim Courier Feb. 10, 1992 27 58
Pete Sampras April 12, 1993 102 218
Andre Agassi April 10, 1995 30 32
Thomas Muster Feb. 12, 1996 5 6
Marcelo Rios March 30, 1998 1 1
"When Venus is 20?" her dad said. "Boy, I'm going to feel sorry
for those other girls."