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Serena Williams watches championship match that included sister Venus.
 

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Venus win brings Cup full circle

BY GENE SAPAKOFF
The Post and Courier

Just when it looked like the 2004 Family Circle Cup might disintegrate into an episode of "ER," along came an international incident, an outbreak of great tennis and 47-year-old Martina Navratilova playing both singles and doubles while finding time to zing George W. Bush, John Daly and Jay Haas. She also used her Puppy Park clout to help stray dogs find homes.

Nothing, however, compared to the comeback show produced by one Venus Ebony Starr Williams, who out-gunned and out-smarted crafty Conchita Martinez in Sunday's final, winning 2-6, 6-2, 6-1.

Spain beat the English and French to South Carolina but Spain's best player couldn't keep the Randy Johnson of women's tennis from winning her first title in 14 months.

"She's really tall," Martinez said of the 6-1, 160-pound Williams, "so the ball comes a little differently."

SWISS DISS

The contrast in style during the final was as different as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who sat together during the match and did the post-match ceremony thing; Martinez is the ultimate clay-court boxer and Williams the slugger more comfortable on faster surfaces.

Just think how good the tournament will be next year when Justine Henin-Hardenne doesn't suddenly return to Belgium with a virus infection and Serena Williams is able to play longer than one 35-minute match before succumbing to knee pain.

And how many tennis tournaments have Swiss and Spanish players exchanging barbs in English?

Patty Schnyder after her semifinal loss on Saturday extended a congratulatory hand to Martinez and then pulled it away in protest of Martinez' superstitious ball retrieval habits.

The Swiss diss brought the loudest chorus of boos in Daniel Island's four-year Family Circle Cup history.

47-BY-40

Everybody won Sunday.

Martinez, 32, hasn't won a title in four years. A Conchita final was nice news in Spain, still aching from a horrific subway bombing.

The Venus victory so early in her comeback after a five-month layoff forced by an abdominal strain means she is a favorite among an injury-riddled top 20 going into next month's French Open.

The real winners were the Family Circle Cup -- a Daniel Island attendance record of 91,410 -- and South Carolina. Earlier in the week, the Club Court was renamed to honor Althea Gibson, the late South Carolina-born tennis pioneer who was the first black player to win titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Some people thought something more significant should have been named after Gibson.

Somewhere, however, she must be proud to know that, per tournament tradition, a 47-by-40-foot poster of the reigning champ will be unveiled outside the stadium court.

"I've never had so much support in a city I've gone to," Venus Williams told the crowd. "In fact, I had to get used to it."

South Carolina tennis just came full circle.
 

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Welcome Back to the top
BY JAMES BECK
Of The Post and Courier Staff

Yes, make no mistake about it. Venus Williams is back, and ready to rule this game of women's tennis.

The early prognosis was that Venus wasn't ready. She played awfully in her opening three-set match against journeyman Samantha Reeves, some observers said. Yes, she did play dreadfully at times. But it was difficult not to recognize the greatness and depth of her game, one that few, if any, players in the history of the women's game could emulate.

It was that first match for Venus in this Family Circle Cup that set the stage for her to win the tournament in her first try. She showed things in the first match that only a great champion could. She played a horrible first set late Tuesday afternoon, but she was vintage Venus in the last two sets.

It wasn't that Venus beat a great player. It was just the way she beat Reeves; the greatness was so obvious in Venus' game. She showed the type of strokes, serves and court coverage that only she among WTA Tour players has. Yes, she was a better tennis player than her younger sister, Serena, even at Serena's peak. That was obvious early in this tournament.

In Sunday afternoon's final, Venus took her game back to her first set of the tournament. She was almost that bad in the first set of her 2-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Conchita Martinez. Martinez played well, but did nothing special in the first set. Venus just hadn't arrived yet.

Once again, the last two sets were vintage Venus. She completely overwhelmed a great clay-court player.

She waited for her shots. She crushed backhands. She was devastating at the net. Her big serve started to come in consistently at 110 and above.

Venus demonstrated that she is more than just a great player. She is a great clay-court champion, a great grass-court champion, a great hard-court champion. She is the ultimate tennis player.

By midway through the second set, she was ripping unbelievably accurate and powerful backhands down the line that Martinez could only stab at, off both Conchita's groundstrokes and serves. When Martinez did get one of them back, Venus was all over the net ready to smash a volley. She hit classic clay-court topspins so hard and so well when drop shots came her way that Martinez was left flat-footed in the middle of the baseline.

The last two sets were a tennis clinic. ESPN could market the tapes from the match for instructional purposes.

A GOLDEN MOMENT

This was a tournament that had so many things go wrong. Rain, wind and cold made the first three days miserable. And the top three seeds all withdrew. But the ending was a true golden moment for the Family Circle Cup.

Venus Williams' success should take this tournament to new heights, with new respect in Charleston, and not just in the tennis community.

A poster of Venus in Family Circle Magazine Stadium should become a Charleston landmark....


James Beck can be contacted by telephone at (843) 937-5540 or e-mail at [email protected].
 
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