Martinez makes her experience tell

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The Independent Online

A day which began here with the promise of youth ended with an emphatic victory for experience. Conchita Martinez swept the 15-year-old Martina Hingis from her path, 6-2, 6-3, to become the first woman to win the Italian singles title for four successive years.

It was the second time Hingis had advanced impressively to a WTA Tour final, and the second time she had found Martinez in uncompromising form. Just as in Hamburg last year, the Spaniard defeated the Czech-born Swiss prodigy in straight sets. On this occasion, however, Hingis at least managed to win more than one game.

While there is no reason to offer consolation to Hingis, whose talent, given the benefit of hard work, is likely to be rewarded with a title soon enough, a splendid week on her first visit to Rome has raised her world ranking four places to No 16 and added $60,000 (pounds 40,000) to a growing bank balance.

More than that, she leaves with the prize of a quarter-final victory against Steffi Graf, the world No 1. Although Hingis had the good fortune to catch the Wimbledon champion on a day when her forehand was wayward and her mind seemed elsewhere, she did not miss the opportunity. It was Graf's first clay-court defeat since losing to Mary Pierce in the semi- finals of the French Open almost two years ago.

Nor did Hingis waver afterwards, capitalising on her success by defeating the strong Romanian Irina Spirlea - the conqueror of Aranxta Sanchez Vicario - to become the youngest finalist in the history of the tournament, aged 15 years 71/2 months.

The new Centre Court at the Foro Italico, which consists chiefly of Norwegian pine, bears a vague resemblance to an ark. The design was in keeping with a weekend of thunderstorms, which delayed Saturday's semi-finals and yesterday's final.

The 24-year-old Martinez, who had also recorded straight sets wins against Gabriela Sabatini, Martina Navratilova and Sanchez Vicario in the previous three finals, appeared to be neither worried nor wearied by the conditions.

Hingis won only one point in each of the opening five games, a combination of tiredness - "I couldn't concentrate on every ball, which I needed to do" - and her opponent's superior shots, before managing to hold serve. She was then helped by a downpour as Martinez attempted to serve out the set. The umpire allowed play to continue before suspending the match after Martinez had been broken to 5-2.

The 20-minute delay gave Hingis an opportunity to assess where she was going wrong, but her initial response was disappointing. When play resumed, she salvaged only one point on her serve before losing the set.

A brief glimpse of the sun at the start of the second set encouraged Hingis, who broke in the opening game and stood at 40-0 in the second. She squandered this lead and was broken again for 3-5, Martinez serving her way into the record book ahead of Chris Evert and Margaret Court, both of whom won the title three times in a row.