Tennis: Hingis driven by distraction

US Open: Rivals see their opportunity as the wonder girl widens her horizons from the court circular
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OUTWARDLY, nothing has changed for Martina Hingis and Pete Sampras in the 12 months since the 1997 US Open. Both still reign supreme in their field and accordingly are seeded as favourites for this year's tournament, starting in New York tomorrow.

Closer inspection, however, reveals that the iron grip Sampras once exerted on the men's game has loosened to the extent that he has twice briefly lost his No 1 ranking in 1998. But it is the recent decline of Hingis which is a cause for more serious concern, particularly among those who admire the mix of ruthlessness and jollity the Swiss 17-year-old employed to dominate women's tennis.

Last year Hingis won three of the four Grand Slams and a total of 12 tournaments. This year she has collected just four so far and has not won a title of any kind since the Italian Open in May. It is, though, a decline which has to be put into perspective, a decline from a position of dominance unmatched since Steffi Graf was in her pomp. Hingis has lost only nine of her 61 singles matches and though her lead in the rankings has been cut from a seemingly unassailable 3,000 points, she remains almost 900 clear of her closest challenger, Lindsay Davenport.

So, then, can Hingis hang on to her US championship? Or, perhaps more to the point, does she care? Tennis has been by no means the only thing in Martina's young life - her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, has had the good sense to ensure that - but the exertions of 1997 left her battle-weary and, as she pointed out, hunted nowadays by the rest of the pack. It has not taken them long to rumble that the Hingis serve is not exactly powerhouse or that someone as chunkily constructed as she is does not rate as one of the sport's better movers.

Hingis accelerated to the summit on the strength of uncanny anticipatory skills and superb shot placement as opposed to power. She has never taken kindly to endless hours of practice, preferring (like John McEnroe) to hone her singles game by playing doubles. The irony of this bleaker year is that she is poised, in partnership with Jana Novotna, to pull off a Grand Slam of doubles successes.

It is not a possibility that Hingis will burn out, as others have done so famously. But the fact that she is a teenager in love - with the Spanish player, Julian Alonso, and also with horse riding - has meant that she is not always totally focused on her job. After losing to the yo-yo tennis of Mary Pierce in the San Diego semi-finals earlier this month, Hingis admitted she gave up in the third set.

Since that victory on clay in Rome, Hingis's six defeats have come mainly against tournament-tough opponents like Davenport, Novotna and Monica Seles. It was Seles who saw her off in straight sets at the French Open semi-finals and Novotna who did the same at Wimbledon, and both are again in her half of the draw. She is scheduled to face Seles, a strong bet for the title, in the quarters and either Novotna or (if she manages to stay in one piece) Graf in the semis.

The other big American hopes, Davenport and Venus Williams, who has knee problems, are in the opposite section and therefore beyond consideration unless she gets to the final. On form, it looks as if Seles and Davenport could contest the final. This would guarantee the first American champion at Flushing Meadows since Seles in 1992 or, if Davenport were to win, the first American-born champion since Chris Evert 16 years ago.

Prospects of an American victory in the men's event rest on Sampras, the four-time champion, and a resurgent Andre Agassi. No other contender from the US merits a seeding or a moment's consideration. American talent is so thinly spread as to constitute a crisis for their administrators but Sampras could provide a boost for them and himself if he can add this title to a Wimbledon win, something he previously achieved in 1993 and 1995.

A victory here would see Sampras draw level with Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slams, but history's beckoning finger could just as easily prove a distraction as an incentive. At 27, Sampras is exhibiting the first, slight signs of a downturn so he will be anxious to draw level with, and then surpass, the Emerson mark before he welcomes his 28th birthday next August.

The draw has done Sampras no favours by projecting a quarter-final meeting with Agassi who, in an incredible 10 months, has bounced back from 141 in the world rankings to the top 10. That Agassi is in sharp form was shown by his 6-7 6-1 6-2 defeat of Sampras at the Canadian Open three weeks ago. It would be wonderful to see Agassi sashay to another Grand Slam and his current form would merit it, with one reservation - stamina. He does not live comfortably with the later stages of five- set matches and in the heat and humidity of New York he could be overturned by someone younger and fitter, which is what Pat Rafter did to him a year ago.

After a midsummer sag Rafter looks to be back to his best just in time to embark on the defence of a US title he won so bravely and excitingly. After duff shows at the French Open and Wimbledon he has come good on the hard courts of the North American circuit, winning back-to-back in Toronto and Cincinnati, where he beat Sampras, for only the second time ever, in the final.

And what of the Brits, Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman? Rusedski was lamenting the other day that his ankle injury had robbed him of the chance to challenge Sampras for the No 1 spot. Despite some solid wins, Rusedski remains some way short of that ambition and has suffered the further misfortune of a nightmare draw. Seeded six, he must start against the dangerous Wayne Ferreira, with the further possibility of Goran Ivanisevic, Marc Rosset or Jonas Bjorkman to be removed before a quarter-final with Rafter and a semi against Sampras or Agassi.

Henman, seeded 13th, is in the less demanding lower half of the draw and, on the back of new-found consistency and the confidence engendered by his semi-final place at Wimbledon, could improve on his previous US Open best, a fourth-round place in 1996, though dangers lurk for him, too, in the early rounds. Sampras's coach, Paul Annacone, predicts of Henman: "In a couple of years you will see spectacular things from him."

In the meantime, the US is the most open of Opens. The three Grand Slams so far have produced six different winners, men and women. If the pattern repeats itself in New York it will be the first time since 1990 that eight different champions have been crowned in one year.