Seles prepares to settle an old score with Hingis: Tennis

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The Independent Online
When Monica Seles first began to startle the sporting world, grunting and driving opponents into the ground, she was asked if success was likely to change her. "No," she replied, "I'll just be the same little old me". Fate - specifically a knife-wielding Steffi Graf fanatic - decided otherwise.

Win or lose against Martina Hingis today in the women's singles final at the Lipton Championships here, Seles will see one of her records eclipsed by the Swiss teenager. On Monday, Hingis will overtake Steffi Graf in the rankings and become the youngest ever world No 1, aged 16 years, six months and one day. Seles was 17 years, three months and nine days on 11 March, 1991, when breaking the previous record set by Tracy Austin in 1980.

At 23, Seles is endeavouring to restore her game to something approaching its former glory after a series of injuries followed her successful comeback in 1995. She also has to cope with the emotional trauma of her father/coach Karolj's battle against cancer.

The Lipton is Seles's first tournament since her latest injury, a broken finger, caused, she says, when she caught a ball served by Martina Hingis as they warmed up for an exhibition match in Geneva on 2 December. "A great birthday present," Seles said.

Hingis is unbeaten in 25 consecutive matches this year, a run which has yielded four titles, including the Australian Open. She won her only previous WTA Tour match against Seles, 6-2, 6-0, in Oakland, California, last November - making only five unforced errors. "She creamed me - whatever word you would use - on the court that day," Seles said. "What is so scary about her is that she only gets better.''

Seles, currently ranked No 5, expects Hingis to remain at No 1 "safely through the US Open" [in September] at least. "Steffi has to defend a lot of points, and Martina doesn't, so she's going to gain a lot of points. She's playing a lot more tournaments than Steffi. I'm not sure how open the No 1 spot will be till pretty much the end of the year.''

Asked how special it would be to level the score against Hingis today, she said, "Each time I go out there I don't like to think of the past match, whether I won or lost, because it's a new match, new surroundings, all those things.

"I think it's a very special match for Martina, but in my mind that will not make a difference. When I became No 1 I played Martina Navratilova in the finals, and it didn't really make a difference. Of course, I had to beat Navratilova to be No 1 that week, which for Martina [Hingis] is not the case. She's No 1 no matter what. She's the youngest No 1 ever, and that's great, an unbelievable achievement. I'm sure she'd like to have another title, like all of us.''

Although Seles has appeared to lack fitness and timing in several of her matches this week, she swept past Germany's Barbara Paulus in the semi-finals on Thursday night, 6-1, 6-0. "I think I took control a little bit more than in the sets before," she said. "I really wanted to do that today. I just said to myself, `Go out there and play your game, don't have any long points'. That was my goal." It worked a treat.

Hingis, while believing herself to be the best player in the world, is not one to underestimate opponents.

After defeating Venus Williams, another 16-year-old, in the third round, Hingis said she was more concerned about the established players. Asked to rate the pace of her rivals, she said, "I think Monica hits it very hard, if she's in good shape. Steffi for sure, from her forehand. Mary Pierce hits it very hard, too. But I think Monica is the toughest player.''

Hingis would naturally prefer to supplant Graf by defeating her in a tournament, but she has not allowed herself to be inhibited by the German's absence because of a knee injury.

"Actually, it's not my problem," Hingis said. "She has to be prepared and try to play at these tournaments. If she's not able to compete, somebody else is going to step in there. "If Steffi is going to come back and play well, I'd like to play her again. It's a long time since we played in New York, and I had a great time. But I have won four tournaments in a row, and I didn't play badly, so why shouldn't I feel that I am the best player in the world?

"It's just like a little dream is coming true right now. All you worked for, becoming the best tennis player in the world. It's the greatest feeling you can get, really."