Venus, Safin Come of Age on Courts

Unknown
NEW YORK Venus Williams twirled in half-circles, laughing and waving her arms on Centre Court after winning Wimbledon last summer, a joy that spilled over to a crowd that laughed with her.

Everyone knew they were seeing something special: The blossoming of a young woman who could dominate tennis for years with sister Serena and the triumph of the first black female champion at Wimbledon since Althea Gibson in 1958.

Venus confirmed that feeling at the U.S. Open two months later when she tightened the family grip on womens tennis by winning the title Serena had captured the year before. A few weeks later, Venus added two Olympic gold medals to her treasure chest, one for singles and one for doubles with Serena.

"I guess Ive graduated to a different level where I can be like some of the greats," Venus said in Sydney after running her singles winning streak to 32 matches.

There was no boasting in her words, no superiority in her voice. Rather, she sounded, at 20, as if she suddenly realized how good she had become.

Her breakthrough to the top of the game, if not the top of the rankings, came after she sat out six months with tendinitis in both wrists. Her father, Richard, suggested in March that she take off a year rather than risk further injury. But Venus decided to tape up those thin wrists and play without fear.

Fear had been holding back another young player with great potential until he, too, broke through this year.

Tall and strong, with an all-court game that could bring him success on every Grand Slam surface, Russias Marat Safin spoke of how he was afraid to attack more established players during the French Open and Wimbledon.

Too often, Safin expressed his fear and frustration by throwing temper tantrums, breaking rackets even more often than Goran Ivanisevic.

Then, suddenly, in a two-week show of talent and patience, Safin came of age.

In the U.S. Open final, Pete Sampras looked across the net as if he were staring in a funny mirror distorted by time. The image he saw was younger, larger, stronger the 20-year-old Safin with his peach-fuzz face and grown-up game.

The 1.93-meter Safin gave Sampras, the career Grand Slam champion, one of his worst losses to become the first Russian to win the U.S. Open.

"He reminded me of myself when I was 19 and came here and won for the first time," the 29-year-old Sampras said. "The way hes playing, hes the future of the game. I didnt feel old. I felt I was standing next to a big dude."

The big dude, who got down on his knees and kissed the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium to celebrate his victory, became the youngest U.S. Open champion since Sampras won the first of his four titles a decade ago.

It was Safins first major title and only the fifth tournament win of his brief career, and it came in the most lopsided victory (6-4, 6-3, 6-3) over a former champion in 25 years.

"Its a bit of a humbling feeling to have someone play that well for that long," Sampras said. "He serves harder than I did at 19. Hes more powerful. He doesnt have many holes. He moves well. Hes going to win many majors."

Only two months earlier, Sampras won a record 13th Grand Slam title, capturing Wimbledon for the seventh time in a dramatic four-set match against Australias Patrick Rafter.

No Wimbledon title had ever come with more pain and difficulty than Sampras suffered in this one, dealing with acute tendinitis above his left ankle from the second round on.