Tennis: Faith plays a major part for Hingis

French Open: The world No 1 must hold her nerve in the final to stop Graf from rolling back the years
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The Independent Online
FOR THE past three years, Martina Hingis has lit a candle at the Sacre Coeur before competing at the French Open. "You can take a big candle or just a small one and pay 50 francs, or 15 or 10. I put the middle one," the world No 1 said. "I pray to God He's going to help. Hopefully this time it works."

If faith can move mountains, you would expect there would be less bother budging the lithe Steffi Graf, who today stands between the 18-year-old Hingis and the only Grand Slam singles title she has yet to win. Hingis's faith in herself, however, may be the critical factor here, bearing in mind that the 29-year-old Graf appears to be more at ease with herself and her game than she has for years.

By advancing to her first Grand Slam final since defeating Monica Seles at the 1996 United States Open, Graf has proved to herself that her career need not be considered in the past tense. She has also realised that she long ago reached the the stage of having nothing left to prove to anybody else.

"When I was asked earlier in the tournament about my chances, I said: 'I don't worry about it, I'm just going to play'," Graf reminded us. "That's what I've been doing, match by match. I am extremely happy to have reached the final. That's something I really did not believe I'd be able to do when I got here."

Only a fool would suggest that a player who has won 21 Grand Slam singles titles, seven of them at Wimbledon, is likely to lose her competitive instinct when so close to another major triumph. There is little chance of that happening to Graf. In fact what would make Graf particularly dangerous for Hingis today is if the great champion managed to maintain a comparatively relaxed mood while retaining a winning edge. "I go out there and don't have to feel that I have to win," Graf says. "I think that's going to work for me."

Young though she is, Hingis may sense that, on this particular occasion, she has more to lose than the German, who is bound to be the sentimental favourite. Nerves may play a bigger part than the forehands and backhands.

For the first time, the pair will be playing each other in a Grand Slam final. In three previous contests at the majors, Graf defeated Hingis with ease in their two matches on the Wimbledon grass and managed to curb the teenager's burgeoning confidence in the semi-finals of the 1996 United States Open.

Hingis won their only previous match on clay, in three sets in the quarter- finals of the 1996 Italian Open, when Graf's unforced errors were more memorable than Hingis's winners. They once played for five sets on a fast carpet court, in the final of the 1996 WTA Tour Chase Championships at Madison Square Garden, New York. That day Graf proved to be the more durable, winning the final set 6-0.

To be fair, Hingis has learned a lot from her experiences since then, and it could be argued that the most recent of her eight matches against Graf, and her second victory, in the quarter-finals of the Tokyo indoor tournament in February, is a better form guide. It was played on carpet, on which Graf's consistent serve and pulverising forehand is favoured.

The relatively slow clay here should afford Hingis more time to counter Graf's serve and take some of the sting out of the forehand, although the slower pace also tends to give Graf a fraction of a second longer to move into position to deliver the shot inside out from the backhand court, and to groove the sliced backhand.

Stamina and movement are the crux of the clay-court game, and one of the chief reasons for Graf's peace of mind is the wellbeing of her body. "My legs feel a little heavy right now, but they don't really hurt," Graf said after defeating Seles in three sets in the semi-finals. Given her history of injuries and surgeries, that statement amounted to a clean bill of health. "I've been able to play a lot in the last few weeks, especially the last week," she added. "I'm playing a lot and practising a lot. I feel much more comfortable going out there."

Hingis has providently worked hard to shed weight. "The last two or three years I have felt worse towards the end of the tournament," she said. "Now I'm feeling much better. Everybody knows Steffi's strengths. She has a powerful baseline game. The slice backhand is very deep and very low; you can't do much about that. She's a player that gives you time to do something on clay, but she's in very good physical shape."

Interestingly, Hingis expressed the hope that Graf would be nervous playing her first Grand Slam final for over two years. Your correspondent believes the outcome depends on the strength of Hingis's resolve. "If I win, I will go to Sacre Coeur and say: 'Thank God'," she says. "If I lose, no."

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