By Charles Bricker
Posted July 5 2002
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WIMBLEDON, England · She's No. 1 in the rankings for the first time in her career, and anyone who thinks Serena Williams backed onto the throne of the women's tennis tour Thursday through some quirk in the system needs to put away the numbers and face reality.
Long before Williams tore through Amelie Mauresmo 6-2, 6-1 on the first thoroughly dry day of the week to make Saturday's Wimbledon final against big sister Venus, she had been the de facto best player on the Sanex WTA Tour.
She staked her claim to be at the top of the heap when she dominated Venus in the semifinals at the Nasdaq-100 in March, then re-enforced her status by routing her again in the French Open final last month.
Officially, Venus will retain her perch at the front of the rankings until Monday. But even with her strong 6-3, 6-2 semifinal victory over sixth-seeded Justine Henin on Thursday, she has now fallen behind Serena by 437 points and, even if she wins the final, will trail by 87.
"It feels great," Serena said after she devoured Mauresmo, shutting off the powerful Frenchwoman's slice serve and dominating her when she fought her way to the net.
"I've really been working hard. I had a lot of injuries this year, especially at the beginning of the year. I just decided to fight, and things turned around for me."
She didn't merely ascend to No. 1. She grasped the top rung of the rankings by the throat by decimating a player who had taken apart Jennifer Capriati the previous day.
It was a match that not only showcased Serena's physical strengths but her tennis intelligence as well. With one foot in the alley receiving serve on the deuce side, she effectively silenced Mauresmo's wicked slice serve and invited her to try to serve instead down the middle.
The tactic left Mauresmo in a quandary she never solved. She couldn't connect with a strong serve down the middle, and when she forced her slice, Serena ripped into it.
On break point in the fifth game of the opening set, the muscular Mauresmo spun a first serve into Williams' strike zone in the deuce court. Serena slammed a return so close to the baseline it forced Mauresmo into the critical error.
"I knew I had to take away her coming to the net by playing my game, forcing her. It's going to be difficult coming in on a ball that's going back at you 100 mph," Williams said. As for Mauresmo's slice serves, Serena lit up. "I love when people serve me out wide," she boasted. "I just love hitting that forehand. So, for me, hey ... go for it."
Venus' win over Henin was just as easy and against just as important an opponent. The 5-foot-5 Belgian needed to have to have a super-hot day, however, going for the lines, and she ran her course by the middle of the opening set.
And so for the third time, the Williamses will contest a Grand Slam final. Venus won at the 2001 U.S. Open and Serena in Paris last month.
Though Venus has won Wimbledon two years in a row, she'll be the underdog in this match. Their postmatch news conferences were right on form. Venus was initially reluctant to say anything of substance, though she eventually warmed to the growing rivalry with her sister.
When Serena came in, she was talkative, expansive, full of conversational energy.
Venus replied "I don't know" so many times it seemed as if she wanted reporters to just go away. Finally, she opened up. "We make the headlines and the cover stories, all the news, because it's Serena and I," she said, contemplating this latest showdown.
"This is how tennis gets in the news, when there's amazing things happening."
She had come in to meet with reporters while her sister was on court and commented that "when I walk out there against Serena, I realize I'm playing the No. 2 player, a real powerhouse. I've got to be on my toes."
She evidently did not realize that because she has so many points (960 compared to Serena's 240) to defend from last year's Wimbledon that she had lost her No. 1 standing.
If Serena is full of herself after beating her sister twice in a row in critical tournaments, it didn't show.
"This is definitely going to be the most difficult surface for me to face her serve," she said. "It just kind of skids. Actually, I've been returning better because of Venus' serving to me in practice."
In fact, it was Venus' worst day serving in six Wimbledon matches this year.
She had no aces and three double-faults, but even her six-match total of eight is one less than she served in her loss to Serena in Paris.
Serena, meanwhile, was at her aggressive best, blasting away from the baseline but also hitting a couple of winning lobs and tracking down a Mauresmo drop shot and firing it crosscourt for a winner.
She wasn't broken by Mauresmo and got the only second-set break she needed in the first game. Once again, Mauresmo tried to force play at the net, but Serena stroked a delicate backhand slice that was just out of Mauresmo's contact zone. She got a racket to the ball but tapped it into the net at 15-30, setting up the break point that sent Serena off to a sixth and seventh consecutive game win.
Serena now is into the final of the past three Slams she has played.
"I'm going to have a lot of fun out there," she said. "Obviously, I'm going to have to hit two to three, maybe four more balls that Venus would get that someone else wouldn't get. And that's always a problem for me."
She went back to the U.S. Open loss of last year. "A nightmare," she called it. But since then there have been only sweet dreams, and winning Wimbledon would be her third Grand Slam title.
"I really am going to try to win Wimbledon," she said. "I want to belong to the All England Club."