Hingis poised for slam dance

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Two young women, who turned professional at the age of 14 but whose fortunes since have been wildly contrasting, are the most eagerly awaited participants at the Australian Open which begins today.

So often overshadowed by the more marketable men, the women will capture the interest in the year's first Grand Slam, with the comeback of Jennifer Capriati fitting in neatly alongside Martina Hingis's first year as a realistic challenger for one of the top four singles titles. Round one went to Hingis yesterday when she beat Capriati in the final of the Sydney International. Capriati fought back from being 6-1 4-1 down to take Hingis to the final set, before the match-fitness of the Swiss prodigy told.

The two provide a new focus for a game long dominated by Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Injury will prevent Seles from defending the sole Grand Slam she has won since returning after the stabbing incident. Indeed, the world's top two women have not played in the same Australian Open since they fought out a dramatic three-set final in 1993.

Hingis, seeded four, failed to last the distance with Graf when they met in the semi-finals of the US Open in September and the final of the WTA Tour's end-of-year championships in November. At 16 she has youth as her excuse, but she is getting stronger all the time and the game talks of when rather than whether she will win her first Slam.

Capriati, two months off her 21st birthday, was described in one Australian newspaper lastweek as "a serial comeback kid", but this time she finally seems to be getting her act together. Counting her last tournament of 1996 in Chicago, she has reached back-to-back finals, and the way she recovered from 6-2 3-1 down against Lindsay Davenport in Friday's semi- final at the Sydney International showed both character and form.

Like Hingis, Capriati was a pre-teen prodigy from a family who devoted themselves to furthering her career. Both turned professional within days of their 14th birthday but from then their paths diverged. While Hingis has progressed happily, Capriati went off the rails at 17, first getting sick of the grind of the tour, and then landing herself in trouble with the law for theft and drug abuse.

The difference between the two is largely mental. Hingis has a refreshing interest in everything around her; Capriati is unlikely to be the source of profound thoughts. But the American is an intelligent tennis player, and whether or not she is ready to challenge for her first Grand Slam, she showed yesterday that she will be able to hurt Hingis if they meet in the quarter-finals.

Graf - who said on Thursday that her schedule for 1997 would be limited to about 10 tournaments, even at the risk of losing her No 1 ranking - looks to face her first real opposition in the fourth round when the rising Russian Anna Kournikova (at 15 a former junior contemporary of Hingis) should have a chance to test her growing potential. In fairness, though, all the names that have a realistic chance of beating Graf are in the bottom half of the draw, where the No 2 seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario will probably have to beat Chanda Rubin, Iva Majoli and Hingis if she is to make it to her third Australian final.

In the men's draw, a freak accident has robbed the draw of the French champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian No 4 seed breaking his hand while warming up for an exhibition match at the Open's former home of Kooyong on Friday. That looks to give the defending champion Boris Becker a clear run to the semi-finals where he is scheduled to meet Michael Chang.