Tennis: Hingis has to eclipse Venus

Ronald Atkin finds the No 1 is facing a New York marathon

ANDRE AGASSI'S shining pate apart, the women have comfortably outdazzled the men once more in the tennis season now drawing to a close. They even hold the edge when it comes to the venue for the end-of-year championships. The lasses kick off tomorrow in Madison Square Garden, one of sport's most magical arenas, while the lads play next week in a giant Hanover convention hall which looks as if it might once have housed Zeppelins.

New York this week will decide who is top cat in the Women's Tennis Association on millennium's eve. Not in the rankings, since Martina Hingis cannot be dislodged from the No 1 spot, but in the matter of who may dominate in 2000. The four main contenders are Hingis and three Americans, Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena.

Unusually, the four Grand Slam titles were shared this year. Hingis won the Australian, Steffi Graf the French, Davenport took Wimbledon and Serena sensationally stormed the ramparts at the US. Yet, though she won no major singles crown, Venus could march into the new year as the one to beat if she captures the Chase crown next Sunday.

The 16-woman line-up is a quality one, despite the recent retirement of Graf, a five-time winner, and Jana Novotna, the 1997 champion. Of the current crop, only Monica Seles will be absent. The titleholder for three straight years, 1990-92, Seles has been sidelined by an injury to her right foot, but in any case she would hardly have relished dealing with the Williamses' bazooka tennis indoors.

The Chase (nee Virginia Slims) is, famously, the one women's event where the final is best of five sets. Twelve months back, Hingis defeated Davenport in four sets to take the title for the first time and she is the only former champion in the draw. Despite lack of stature and muscle, Hingis's ability to march the distance is not in question, since she lost to Graf in five sets two years ago.

The Swiss 19-year-old is top-seeded, having reached 11 finals this year and won seven. Her first round will be against France's Sandrine Testud, ranked 15th. The 27-year-old from Lyon has lost all their previous five contests but took four of them the three-set distance. If she comes through that one, Hingis will play either her doubles partner, Anna Kournikova, or Mary Pierce. Hingis holds a 6-1 career record over Kournikova, and leads Pierce 7-5, having won the last four.

Then it gets really serious, with a possible semi-final against the third- seeded Venus Williams, to whom she has lost in their last two clashes. Venus, yet to win a Grand Slam, landed six titles this season and has possibly only one peer in the matter of walloping tennis balls, her sister.

The draw has been kind once more to the family, placing them in opposite halves, so there is the prospect of a third 1999 final between the two, Venus having won in Key Biscayne in March and Serena triumphing at the Grand Slam Cup last month.

Serena, who went off to school following that Munich win to study fashion design, is deserting the classroom in favour of the Garden this week and, as fourth seed, should get to the semi-finals and a match with the second- seeded Davenport, over whom she holds a formidable 4-1 career lead.

Should it be an all-Williams final, be assured that their one-off father, Richard, will mosey on up from Florida, probably bearing messages scrawled on a tea tray for the benefit of TV, to witness the further enrichment of the family exchequer.

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