Clever Hingis climbs to final

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A modern-day version of the storybook heroine from Switzerland has shown up at the venerable, pine-ringed Foro Italico, wearing plimsolls and swinging a potent club. She is the tender-looking but terrifying Martina Hingis, the slight 15-year-old who has swooped into the finals of the Italian Open over the startled No 1, Steffi Graf, and the Romanian six- footer Irina Spirlea.

Because this newly proclaimed Swiss Heidi of the Hills of Rome is a millionairess, she has no need to milk goats or do other rural alpine chores described in Johanna Spyri's 19th-century novel. But she made Graf feel like the goat of a sunny quarter-finals in a 2-6 6-2 6-3 victory over a woman who was a teen sensation herself in winning this title at 17 in 1987.

Flamed by a grey and gloomy floodlit setting yesterday, Hingis won the last four games of the opening set and came from 3-4 and a break down in the second, to beat Spirlea, the world No 18, 6-4 7-5. In a soggy, Scottish-misted encounter, Hingis' cleverness - eight points on drop shots - overcame Spirlea's thundering forehand even though the 22-year- old Romanian, conqueror of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the quarter-finals, rescued two match points to 5-5.

Hingis got under cover in little over an hour and now faces the champion Conchita Martinez in today's final. The Spaniard beat Croatia's Iva Majoli 6-4 6-7 6-2. Martinez, the moody Spaniard and champion of Wimbledon two years ago, is aiming for a fourth consecutive Italian prize, eclipsing Margaret Court (1962-64) and Chris Evert (1980-82).

Hingis is no mystery child, of course. Having entered the WTA computer at No 399 towards the end of 1994, she has climbed steadily to No 20. But nobody expected her suddenly to sprint to the crest of the Matterhorn and plant the White Cross of Switzerland for all to see. It was merely the fourth loss in 17 months for Graf, who today will break the record of Hingis' namesake, Martina Navratilova, by appearing at No 1 for a 132nd week.

Although Graf, suffering the biggest upset in the Foro since 1988 when 17-year-old Gabriela Sabatini upended then No 1 Navratilova in the semis, was sluggish, Hingis responded to the chances presented. "I didn't have a clue out there today," Graf said. "I didn't move well or do anything to control her."

Hingis was overjoyed with beating Graf. "I didn't expect to win. I thought I'd be sightseeing over the weekend," Hingis, who is on her first trip to Rome, added. "But maybe it's better to keep playing, and to see the Colosseum and the other old things some other time."

Graf was overrun by Hingis. "She is so thoughtful, has a feel, has an idea of the game that many much older players don't - maybe more than any of them have," Graf said.

Hingis, unlike recent previous huge-hitting prodigies such as Jennifer Capriati, understands how to create a point, move the ball hither and yond, change speed, sneak in for volleys, and place her mild serve in unexpected places. She is smart where others rely on smoke, will get stronger, and does not endanger her 115-pound physique by overhitting. Like the original Heidi, she has the legs for climbing to a higher station.