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Venus Rising Down Under

January 14, 1998

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Down a set and a break, her long, lean legs quivering with cramps, Venus Williams showed the spirit that is the mark of champions.

At that moment Tuesday against Martina Hingis in the Sydney International, a tuneup for next week’s Australian Open, it was no longer about strokes or style, rankings or reputations. It was about will, a refusal to yield, a desire by Williams to find a way, any way, to beat a player who had beaten her three times.

Maybe Hingis wasn’t quite the same player who embarrassed Williams in the U.S. Open final last September and who began her surge to the top of women’s tennis with a victory in this tournament a year ago. Hingis surely looked different, chunkier, her hair shorter and dyed dark brown. Still, she was No. 1 and Williams a mere No. 21.

But on this hot, humid afternoon reminiscent of the sweltering summers in Florida where Williams trains, the careers of these two immensely talented 17-year-olds crossed a threshold and a full-blooded rivalry emerged. Williams found a way to win, beating Hingis for the first time, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5.

It was a match of extraordinary drama deserving of a Grand Slam final. Williams limped and staggered through the third set, rubbing her throbbing legs between almost every point.

And soon after it was over, she could share a hug with her 16-year-old sister, Serena, who came up with a big win of her own, by the exact same score, against 15-year-old Croatian sensation Mirjana Lucic.

Beaded, bejeweled and boldly vowing to rule women’s tennis, Venus and Serena Williams took giant steps in that direction.

``We want to be at the top together,″ the No. 96-ranked Serena said of the goal of achieving the No. 1 and No. 2 spots with her sister.

Serena then joined her sister in the quarterfinals Wednesday with a victory over Sandrine Testud. The Frenchwoman trailed 7-6 (7-5), 3-0 when she retired from the match because of tendinitis in her left knee.

In other matches before rain interrupted play, Natasha Zvereva beat No. 3 Amanda Coetzer in three sets and Ai Sugiyama downed No. 6 Conchita Martinez in straight sets.

Venus Williams came into the match against Hingis confidently talking about reaching No. 1 this year. She departed feeling she’s on her way.

``Anyone can talk, but you have to walk,″ Williams said.

No less startling was 16-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt’s 6-3, 6-7 (7-4), 6-4 first-round victory over men’s No. 4-ranked Jonas Bjorkmann of Sweden.

Hewitt, who surged from No. 550 to No. 200 after winning his first ATP Tour title last week at the Australian Men’s Hardcourt Championships, survived a comeback by Bjorkmann from 1-5 in the final set before capturing the victory on his fifth match point.

As stunning as Hewitt’s performance was last week at Adelaide, where he beat Andre Agassi in the semis and Jason Stoltenberg in the final, the victory over Bjorkmann was perhaps even more impressive. Bjorkmann, the highest-ranked player Hewitt has beaten, was coming off a strong second half of 1997 when he won three titles, reached the U.S. Open semis and helped Sweden win the Davis Cup final 5-0 over the United States.

Hewitt, the youngest man to win a title since Michael Chang in 1988, plays a baseline game similar to Bjorkmann’s. But on this day, Hewitt showed more flair, more creativity and greater touch with perfect lobs and crafty approach shots.

Bjorkmann, claiming he’s played at only half his ability the past two weeks, gave Hewitt no praise.

``It’s tough to rate a guy when I’m not playing as well as I normally do,″ Bjorkmann said. ``I have to go down to the practice courts. My technique is not there. For the moment, anyone in the top 200 can beat me.″

From Hewitt’s point of view, Bjorkmann was just making excuses.

``His shots were coming through pretty quick,″ Hewitt said. ``I feel I’m hitting the ball unbelievably at the moment. But he’s got everything to lose and nothing to gain. I’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose. I kept telling myself the pressure’s on him.″

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