Near-Death Experiences

In big-time tennis, that which does not kill you makes you stronger

What's the toughest thing in sports? Hitting a baseball? Stopping a slapshot? Listening to Dick Vitale do color?

My $.02? None of the above. The hardest thing is closing out a tight tennis match. Don't believe me? Ask Kim Clijsters. In the third round of the U.S. Open the young Belgian hit a spectacular overhead to earn the opportunity to serve for the match at 5-3 in the third set against Serena Williams. But as she stepped to the line her knees were shaking and her service motion was as fluid as streaming video on the Internet. Why? Because she knew that she couldn't fall on the ball, run out the clock, or issue an intentional walk. If she was going to close out the first big upset of the U.S. Open, she was going to have to do it herself. She didn't, of course, losing her serve and 12 straight points.

"I was a little bit scared, I think," she confessed after the match. That's big-tournament tennis, and this fortnight was filled to the rim with match points saved, match points lost, and headlines never quite written. It was the kind of melodrama that's usually reserved for a very special episode of Chicago Hope.

It also proved that Nietzsche was right: that which does not kill you makes you stronger. That's what happened to Serena Williams. After her near-death experience against Clijsters, she took out a still-formidable Monica Seles. She survived a tense, rain-delayed semi against Lindsay Davenport in which both players made errors that would cause even a high school kid to start smashing rackets like John McEnroe. And late Saturday afternoon, Serena stood against Martina Hingis and suddenly she was Kim Clijsters. With the Tiffany silver there for the taking, she played two match points that were looser than Puff Daddy's jeans, and all of a sudden, she found herself in a match again. Hingis wasn't at her best, but she'd been around long enough to know that in the decisive moments of a tight match, tennis is about more than forehands and backhands. Can you say Jana Novotna? Six times over the course of the two days one of the Williams sisters would take a winning lead— a break in a decisive set or a minibreak in a decisive tiebreaker— against the Smirking Swiss. And five times the lead would disappear.

But she couldn't make it a six-pack. "There comes a time when you have to stop caving," Serena joked in the postmatch press conference. "You have to stop." And that's what she did, playing bold postmodern tennis that owed more to Jimmy Connors than Chris Evert, finally staking herself to a lead that a bone-weary Hingis couldn't overcome.

And in the long run, Hingis may someday wish that she just went quietly into that good night. Serena learned a life lesson on Saturday, and having looked at love-40 from both sides now, she'll be that much tougher the next time. More bad news for Martina: Serena committed a whopping 57 errors in a straight-set final— two more than both Greg Rusedski and Todd Martin combined for in five sets. "Imagine if I stop making those errors," Serena wondered. "That's like inconceivable, huh?"

Hingis, for one, can't bear to think about it.

This was of course a win for Team Williams too. Richard Williams may make impolitic observations about his daughters' impending greatness, and racism in this 19th-century sport, but as Serena sagely points out, he's usually right. (There seemed, for example, to be almost as many African Americans on the court at the Arthur Ashe Stadium— four security guards, two linesmen, one ball boy, and one player— as in the stands.) But for all the flak he's taken, remember that he's never suggested that either of his offspring is the Messiah, like Tiger's dad, and nobody's had to issue a restraining order for him.

And let's not forget about Mr. Williams's other daughter. Venus, too, made a stand, pushing Hingis to the brink on a day when her serve completely deserted her— the tennis equivalent of Randy Johnson shutting down the Colorado Rockies with nothing but an 83 mph fastball. I'll lay early odds on a Venus­Serena final to start the millennium.

Of course the Nietzsche factor has its limits. Take Todd Martin. In his fourth-round match against Rusedski, he came back from the dead more often than Freddy Kreuger. Facing the biggest server in the game down two sets and a break is the tennis equivalent of sitting on death row in Huntsville at 11 o'clock waiting for a call from the gov. But that's the wonderful thing about tennis: win the next point, and you're still alive. And that's what Martin did, clawing back from a fifth set break, another situation that virtually strapped him to the gurney and started the IV.

After that, Martin began playing like Pete Sampras Lite. He won a semifinal TKO over Cedric Pioline, who himself had survived an Iliad of a tiebreaker against Gustavo Kuerten. And against Andre Agassi in the finals, Martin gambled like Donald Trump, and came within one loose service game at the beginning of the fourth set from completing the most stunning Grand Slam upset since the Arthur Ashe­ Jimmy Connors Wimbledon final. But in the fifth set, the coach turned into a pumpkin and hard truth had to be served: Agassi had too much game, and Martin would cement his reputation as the Vitas Gerulatis of the '90s.

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