Tennis: Hingis dismisses Williams' challenge

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The Independent Online
"I have a nice present for you," Martina Hingis declared, gently tossing a bead into a crowd of reporters in the interview room at the Lipton Championships here. "There's a cute thing I found on the court. One of Venus's pearls.''

The bead had shaken loose from Venus Williams's braided hair as the lofty Californian bounded about the court, lashing the ball from all angles in her first match against Hingis.

Two 16-year-olds, Hingis about to become the youngest ever world No 1, Williams emerging to experience regular exposure on the professional tour and predicting a new rivalry, but not the one expected.

"No, I think it will be my sister [Serena] and I fighting to be the two best players in the world," Williams said, adding, "I measure myself against myself. I would never measure myself against someone else. I feel that I'm the best, OK?''

Hingis, having sampled Williams's power while losing the opening three games and then displayed the greater court-craft to win, 6-4, 6-2, was informed of the American's view of the future.

"Oh, really? Oh, that's nice.''

The tone has been set for what promises to be a feisty new era in women's tennis, although Hingis is currently preoccupied with the status quo. "I think I'm much more worried about other players who are on the Tour," she said, not confining her thoughts to the likes of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. "I think [Chanda] Rubin is a tough player, Lindsay Davenport, Irina Spirlea, Anke Huber, I always had hard matches against Anke. Jana Novotna, she beat me the last two times.''

Novotna was busy yesterday educating a third rising star, the 15-year- old Russian Anna Kournikova, 6-3, 6-4, in the fourth round.

Hingis advanced to the quarter-finals with a hard-earned win against Russia's Elena Likhovtseva, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 and hopes to increase her record for the year to 24-0 when she plays Mary Joe Fernandez, a local favourite.

The second favourite was eliminated as Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's dismal run of form continued with a 6-0, 7-5 defeat by Sandrine Testud, of France.

A pain in the neck ended Goran Ivanisevic's run of success at last year's Lipton, and the temperamental Croat is determined not to allow pains in the neck of the human variety to handicap his prospects on this occasion.

When the interaction of a partisan crowd became too raucous in response to one or two umpiring decisions during Ivanisevic's third round match against Florida's Vince Spadea on Sunday night, the Croat made an effort to hold himself in check.

However, having survived the contest, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, the fourth-seeded Ivanisevic pointed a finger at a number of his persecutors. "There are idiots everywhere, but especially here," he said afterwards. "It's OK, it's a free country, so any idiot can come and watch tennis.''

The heckling intensified during the final set, when the umpire, Carlos Bernardes, twice overruled line calls in favour of Ivanisevic and ordered the points to be replayed. A frustrated Spadea later threw his racket and was penalised a point for making a gesture towards the chair, insisting afterwards that he had turned a low two into a high five and the umpire "interpreted it the wrong way".

Spadea described the official's decisions as "ridiculous" and the atmosphere as "just chaotic", adding that when play is interrupted by a noisy crowd the effect can be similar to a rain delay or one caused by injury.

"You just sit there forever, not moving," he said. "I had some bad things go against me, I guess Goran did, too, and the crowd got extremely involved. I just got too consumed with what was going on rather than focusing and capitalising on the opportunities I did have control of.''

One could imagine John McEnroe's response to the situation. "He would have complimented my actions, probably with a few drinks," Spadea said. "He could have gotten the crowd involved more, if that was possible.''

Ivanisevic's reaction was also characteristic. "A guy told me, 'Damn you!' I think it's not a great thing to say. But then I hit an ace. I'm like that when there's more pressure on me. I can play much better when they are screaming and yelling and clapping. I have the opposite reaction inside me, then I always play better.''

A year ago, Ivanisevic did not require external motivation. He advanced to his seventh ATP Tour final, having won titles in Zagreb, Dubai, Milan and Rotterdam, only to retire in pain from a crick in his neck after 10 minutes of the Lipton final against Andre Agassi.

"I think it was from all the playing and all the stress that I had," he recounted. "I was too tight, thinking how I could win. I didn't sleep well.''

Ivanisevic now faces the 19-year-old Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, who has been voted the ATP Tour's Player to Watch. The youngster will have to keep an eye on his opponent. As Spadea said of Sunday's match, "Aside from all the drama and all the crap, the tennis was actually where he just outplayed me."

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