Tennis: Hingis finds reserves of resilience

Martina Hingis does not find winning Grand Slam titles quite so easy as falling off a horse, but it is getting close. Six weeks after knee surgery following her latest tumble, the 16-year-old world No 1 is just one match away from adding the French Open championship to January's triumph in Australia.

Iva Majoli, the 19-year-old Croatian ninth seed, stands between Hingis and the second leg of a sweep of the year's four major singles championships, a feat achieved by only three women, Steffi Graf (1988), Margaret Court (1970) and Maureen Connolly (1953).

Hingis still has a long way to go, but judging by her performances here in Paris while rehabilitating the left knee, the Slovakian-born Swiss will take some stopping. Majoli, who edged out South Africa's Amanda Coetzer, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, in a match of 20 service breaks, has won one of her three previous meetings with Hingis, but this will be their first match on clay.

Yesterday's victory against Monica Seles, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, which extended Hingis's winning sequence for the year to 40 matches (including the Hopman Cup and Fed Cup), was a triumph of breathtaking skill and mental and physical resilience.

"I have never been so happy after making a match point as this time," Hingis said, "because I didn't know what to expect from myself in this tournament. It's never easy to come back after surgery. My goal was to reach the semi-finals, and now I have a great chance to win the whole tournament. If you had said that I would make the final six weeks after the surgery, I would say: 'Thank God I could play and compete at this tournament'.''

She admitted that fatigue had concerned her during the closing stages of the two hours and 18 minutes duel with Seles. "I didn't feel in good shape any more and I was almost shaking because I didn't want to lose." Ecstatic after the moment of victory, Hingis summoned the energy to hurl balls to cheering spectators on the four sides of the Centre Court.

Even if Hingis wins tomorrow's final, Seles will keep her record as the youngest French singles champion. The Serbian-born American was 16 years and six months (two months younger than Hingis is now) on achieving the first of three consecutive victories here before her career was interrupted by the stabbing in Germany in April 1993.

A fascinating contest between Seles's powerful two-handed driving and Hingis's broad range of strokes and strategy was in the balance after Seles took the risk of playing a drive volley, which thudded into the net and virtually cost her the second set. "I felt pretty comfortable till I missed that crazy shot," Seles said.

Once Hingis broke for 2-1 in the third set, it appeared that only a physical let-down would keep keep her from the final. "That early break took the momentum away," Seles admitted. Obviously Martina played better tennis than I did today. That's why she won. She has a great touch.

"I don't have the strength and intensity of the strokes that I used to have. I'm missing way too many shots that before would just go in. Martina had that consistency throughout the match, especially at key times.''

Hingis has now won all four of her matches against the former world No 1. Seles has made the last two close, but not close enough. "Martina is playing just amazing tennis, not just for this tournament but throughout the year," she said. "The way she plays, with all the expectations, I think that's wonderful."

n Tim Henman is to play doubles with Pete Sampras at the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club, London, begining on Monday. The pairing is at the instigation of the American world No 1.