Ten performances that shook the world: Tennis - Hingis has confidence o f youth to negate Novotna's challenge
Saturday 27 December 1997
Up in the players' guest box, two faces were studied more closely than the rest. Melanie Molitor and Hana Mandlikova, both from the Czech Republic, did their best to appear relaxed while suppressing nerves.
Molitor, Hingis's mother and coach, had named her daughter Martina after the great Navratilova, scarcely daring to dream that the day would arrive when her Slovakian-born child would triumph on the stage Navratilova had made her own.
Mandlikova was all too familiar with the Centre Court. She had lost there in two singles finals, against Chris Evert in 1981 and Navratilova in 1986. Mandlikova had also, as Novotna's coach, suffered agonies in the guest box in 1993 when her compatriot lost to Steffi Graf in the final after serving with a 4-1 lead in the deciding set.
Novotna, 28, was the sympathetic favourite of many of the spectators, her tearful episode against Graf now part of Wimbledon lore and her attacking style worthy of gold leaf acknowledgement on the roll of honour. Graf's absence after injuring a knee during the French Open contributed to the popular support for Novotna, a member of the established order attempting to fend off the head girl of a rising generation.
For all that, and the conviction that Hingis's time would come soon enough, the historical context of the Swiss prodigy's progress was irresistible. A year earlier, aged 15 years and 282 days, Hingis had become the youngest winner of a principal event at Wimbledon, partnering the Czech Helena Sukova to the women's doubles title.
Lottie Dod, the youngest singles champion, was aged 15 years and 285 days when she won the title in 1887. The Cheshire cotton-broker's daughter was only required to win three matches, including the challenge round.
Hingis, the holder of the Australian Open title and the youngest world No 1, did not encounter a seeded opponent in the top half of the draw. One of the potential dangers, Iva Majoli, the No 4 seed, at that point the only player to have beaten Hingis since the start of the year (in the final of the French Open), was eliminated before their projected meeting in the semi-finals.
Early in the contest, Novotna, the No 3 seed, threatened to dispatch Hingis with the superiority of her grass-court play, serving confidently, making deep, low approach shots and volleying with a finesse her opponent had rarely seen before.
One of the qualities which has separated Hingis from the majority of competitors, since she burst on the international scene as a 12-year-old winner of the French Open junior title, is the ability to think her way through tactical problems.
Having steadied her serve, she began to counter her opponent's movements to the net with a variety of precise groundstrokes. Novotna's strategy remained unchanged, even though she was being picked off and was feeling the effects of an abdominal strain.
Yet Novotna survived five break points in the opening game of the final set and took a 2-0 lead, only for Hingis to transform the threadbare lawn into a canvas for her boldest strokes, prevailing, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.
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