Glittering women now get top billing

Pete Sampras is great. So are Gustavo Kuerten, Marat Safin, and Andy Roddick.

But this year at the US Open tennis tournament in New York, the women rule.

They are young and restless; their play is bold and beautiful. More and more, they're the ones the fans want to see.

"I think there's a lot of new attitudes out here," says Serena Williams, who entered the Open as the No. 10 seed. "More people are looking at tennis. It's really exciting to watch, to watch ladies actually go out there and compete, watch ladies be pretty, watch ladies sweat, do a lot of different things."

For the first time in US Open history, the women will play their championship in prime time, Saturday at 8 p.m. on CBS.

And, heading into the semifinals today, the matchups couldn't be better.

Serena, with her explosive power, will take on the No.1-ranked woman in the world, Martina Hingis, who is the ultimate precision player. On the other side of the draw, Serena's supremely talented older sister, Venus, will play Jennifer Capriati, the comeback kid who has already won two Grand Slam titles this year.

Although anything could happen among the final four, nothing would be more tantalizing than a Williams vs. Williams final, something that so far has never happened in a major tournament.

"I'm here to see the women slug it out," says Rich Faherty, a tennis fan from Manhattan who had taken a day off from work to catch the action. "And if the Williams sisters face off in the finals, that's even better. That would be worth its weight in gold."

The women's game has steadily gained popularity in the past five years, as the players have gotten stronger and more consistent. In a USA Today poll, 75 percent of fans said they would rather watch women play than men. Last week, Serena and Venus were on the cover of Time magazine.

The women's popularity is largely due to a strong core of top American players, who consistently make it into the late rounds of tournaments. Another American, Lindsay Davenport, is ranked No. 3 in the world.

The men's game, on the other hand, has so much parity that almost anyone can beat anyone, sometimes producing a final four with three names that are unrecognizable.

The men's game is dominated by blazing serves and one- or two-hit rallies. The women slug it out from the baseline, launching bomb after bomb, running furiously back and forth, and grunting in the tradition of world No. 8 Monica Seles. In other words, the women hit hard enough to make it interesting, but not hard enough to cause whiplash.

"I think guys just serve too big now," laments Andre Agassi, the No. 2 men's player in the world. "I mean, you don't really have to volley, if you can blow it in there 142 miles an hour. You know, [some players think], 'I'm going to crush this serve and deal with whatever's left.' "

The women have another edge: personality. Enough, in fact, to sometimes overshadow their play. The most popular player is Russian beauty Anna Kournikova, who isn't even playing at the Open because of a foot injury. In fact, she's never even won a professional tournament.

And there are other off-court stars. First come the Williams sisters, who learned the game in Compton, Calif., from their cantankerous father, Richard. They also attend fashion school in Florida, making it seem as if they consider tennis a part-time job. Not living on the tour has given them the reputation of being aloof.

Regardless, they're the most talented players around. Venus has the fastest women's serve, at up to 123 m.p.h. She runs like, well, Steffi Graf. Serena is close behind, when she feels like playing. Both dress like runway models with sneakers.

Their archrival is Hingis, who has failed to win her last 10 Grand Slam events, but has managed to cling to the No. 1 ranking by consistently beating lesser opponents. Born in Czechoslovakia, she now plays under the Swiss flag. Hingis has accused the Williams sisters of using their race to their advantage, to receive endorsements and to deflect criticism.

"As for being black and getting more endorsements because I'm black, I wouldn't know anything about that," Serena says. "All I know is I get endorsements because I win and I work hard. I go out there and have a good attitude, and I smile. I like tennis."

Capriati, the fourth semifinalist, has the best story of all. In 1990, at 14, she was ranked in the Top 10 and, at the French Open, became the youngest female player ever to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam event.

But, unable to get over the hump and beat the top players of the day, Graf and Monica Seles, Capriati dropped out of the circuit just as fast as she appeared. She eventually returned to the public eye when she was caught by the police with marijuana. Instead of having an athlete's body and a golden smile, she was overweight and wore a nose ring.

But Capriati stormed back into shape, and this year she reached the summit. She won the Australian Open, her first Grand Slam victory, and then the French Open. Venus Williams won the year's third major event, Wimbledon.

Now, the only remaining Grand Slam event for 2001 is this Open, and who wins is anybody's guess.

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