SPORT

Serena Slam it is

Melbourne Jan. 25 . Sitting alone in front of a television in West Palm Beach, Florida, in the middle of the night, a slightly eccentric man would have allowed himself a broad smile of satisfaction and lit one of his favourite cigars even as the crowd in Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park rose to its feet to applaud two remarkably gifted young women shortly after 4 p.m. here on Saturday.

In the ongoing process of history-making, Williamses style, another landmark was reached as Serena Williams outlasted her older sister Venus in perhaps the finest Grand Slam contest between the two to complete a Serena Slam.

The 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 victory in the women's singles final of the Australian Open saw Serena become only the fifth women in the history of the game to hold all four major titles at the same time. She had won the French, Wimbledon and U.S. titles last year, each time beating Venus in the final.

Richard Williams, whose impossible dream made it all possible, was not here to see the youngest of his five daughters make history. But he saw it coming long before any of us had the chance to see Serena on court, or on television, and realise what a great champion she was.

The old man might generally be thought to be slightly touched up there. But he had been right in every single so-called fantastic prophesises of his.

When he first said that Venus, without ever playing in the junior circuit, would one day dominate women's tennis, the so-called experts in the game thought he was a raving lunatic. Venus did just that in 2000 and 2001.When he said that his two daughters would one day be ranked No.1 and No.2 and contest a succession of Slam finals, they laughed.

Now they have played each other five times in a row, starting with the 2001 U.S. Open final, the sequence broken only because Serena had to pull out of last year's Australian Open and Venus was surprised by Monica Seles.

And, finally, at a time when Venus was dominating a teenaged Serena, when Richard Williams said that the younger one was far better than the older one, many believed he must be referred to a psychiatrist. The Serena Slam has again proved him right.

Puff away on that cigar Richard. You were right in every one of your predictions.

Final indoors

On a brutally hot day when the temperature outside touched a peak of 44 degrees, the organisers made an early decision to keep the roof on and this was certainly a big factor in the quality of tennis produced by the sisters.

This was not only the first time that the two have played three sets in a Grand Slam but, more importantly, Saturday's was a high quality contest that threatened to slip to mediocrity only in the late stages when both women were tense and made a bunch of nervous errors.

But right through the match, as well as Venus played despite a misbehaving serve and a forehand that had taken leave of her, it always seemed possible that mental edge would prove elusive to the older Williams when it came to the crunch. And so it turned out to be yet again as Serena proved that she is very much the woman in control of things.

The victory saw Serena join such immortals of the game as the late Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, the only other players who have won four in a row. Connolly, Court and Graf won calender year slams but Navratilova, like Serena, won four in a row over two years.

``I have never celebrated a Grand Slam win. Maybe I will this time,'' said Serena. "It is definitely special to be mentioned among those great players.''

After trading breaks early, Venus broke Serena in the ninth game of the first set but squandered the chance to serve it out. Then Serena took command of the tiebreak early before Venus played her best tennis of the match in the second set, breaking to 4-2 and serving it out confidently in the ninth game.

In the decider, Venus fended off five breakpoints to hold to 4-4 and it was clear that she was once again having problems landing her first serves. But the end was near. Serving to stay in the match in the 10th, Venus started with two backhand errors and then hit a double fault before sailing yet another forehand long.

``I was not aggressive enough,'' admitted Venus who has not beaten her sister since September 2001. "Right now Serena is mentally tougher out there. I would like to be like her.''

Overwhelming favourite

Earlier in the day, as a merciless sun beat down upon Melbourne Park on a scalding hot day, a grizzled old punter made his way to the betting shop on the concourse, stared at the screen flashing the odds for the men's final to be played on Sunday and shook his head in disbelief.

``This is ridiculous,'' said the old man. "It is one man against another and look at the odds.''

The odds were simple. You put a dollar on Andre Agassi to win the final, you get a dollar and 18 cents back, a meagre return of 18 cents to a dollar. And if you put a dollar on Rainer Schuettler, you get five dollars and 75 cents back, that is a lucrative return of almost five times your money.

Anybody for Schuettler? Twenty four hours ahead of the men's final to be played on Sunday, there were few takers, really. Not even when another floater, the Frenchman Arnaud Clement, made the final against Agassi here two years ago was the American as big a favourite.

Perhaps the best chance for Schuettler would be to hope that Agassi would go down with a severe case of food poisoning, which is exactly what the German thinks he needs to beat the seven-time Grand Slam champion.

``Maybe he eats something wrong the day before, then I have a chance,'' said Schuettler with a broad smile on Friday.

Then again, given how meticulously Agassi himself prepares for his matches at Grand Slam events, that possibility can be ruled out.

``As hard as it is to be prepared, it is a lot harder to come down here and not be prepared,'' said Agassi, who will go into Sunday's match, at 32 years and 272 days, as the oldest Grand Slam finalist in 28 years.

It is unlikely that the charismatic American would ever again get such an opportunity in a Grand Slam final. The last time he made one, in September 2002, the man standing across the net from him was one Pete Sampras, who has beaten him in four out of five Grand Slam final meetings.

This time, in his 14th Slam final, the world No.2 who has not been beaten in the Australian Open in 20 matches over four years, will be playing a man whose best Grand Slam effort was the Round of 16 before he entered the first major championship of the new year.

Sometime on Sunday afternoon, that job will get done. If it doesn't, then we might have witnessed one of the greatest upsets in Grand Slam finals history.

Meanwhile, in the men's doubles final, it was sweet revenge for the Frenchman Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro who beat Mark Knowles of the Bahamas and Daniel Nestor of Canada, the top seeds _ to whom they had lost the final last year _ 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

The results: women: singles final: 1-Serena Williams (U.S.) bt 2-Venus Williams (U.S.) 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4. Men: doubles final: Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro (Fra) bt Mark Knowles (Bah) and Daniel Nestor (Can) 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.