Tennis: Hingis has to fight off Williams

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MARTINA HINGIS added the Italian Open to her collection of titles yesterday, making fewer errors than Venus Williams in a close contest between the 17-year-olds in the heat and humidity of the Foro Italico.

The Swiss world No 1 won, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3, and leads the rivalry with the American, 5-2. This was their first meeting on a clay court; indeed, it was Williams's first tournament on the surface, though it did not appear to slow her down any more than the bandage above her left knee.

On Hingis's only previous visit to the tournament, two years ago, she defeated an error-prone Steffi Graf in the quarter-finals and lost to Conchita Martinez in straight sets in the final. Since then the world of women's tennis has turned in favour of a new generation.

In advancing to the final, Hingis eliminated two other teenagers, Anna Kournikova and Mirjana Lucic, in straight sets. Williams subdued her 16- year-old sister, Serena, and edged a semi-final against the experienced Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 7-5 in the third set.

In winning two of her three previous matches against Hingis this year, Williams demonstrated that she had improved considerably both in technique and strategy since her disappointing performance against the Wimbledon champion in last year's United States Open final.

Yesterday's final provided further evidence of the American's growing confidence, and Hingis would not be at all surprised to be facing Williams again in the final of the French Open next month. "She's not 100 per cent fit, and clay is not her favourite surface, but right now she's the No 2 player in the world," Hingis said, promoting Williams from her current ranking of No 7.

During the semi-final against Sanchez Vicario, Williams had treatment for a strained muscle and began wearing the bandage above the left knee. Later on Saturday, she partnered Serena in a doubles match which lasted two and a half hours.

Hingis had only conceded 15 games en route to the final, and was strongly fancied to win comfortably. The reasoning failed to take the American's determination into consideration. Although she lost an early service break, and was generally second best in the opening set, Williams took advantage of Hingis's errors to level the match.

There were six service breaks in the final set, Williams recovering after losing the opening game to level at 2-2 with some splendid rallying. She was then broken from 40-0 in the fifth game, fighting back to break Hingis to love. A netted backhand cost Williams the seventh game, from which point Hingis took control, securing victory after an hour and 45 minutes.

A backhand drop volley to end a spirited rally brought Hingis her second match point, and she lured Williams into overhitting a forehand. "It's tough to play against Venus," Hingis said. "She's all arms and legs. She was running about the court and always there, and with a better answer sometimes. But for me the last three games were OK. I just started thinking a little bit better at the end."

The men's tournament gets under way this afternoon, with Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman following each other on Court No 5 and both have potentially difficult matches. Rusedski, the No 5 seed, plays the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach and Henman meets the Frenchman Fabrice Santoro. Pete Sampras, the world No 1, also faces a possibly fraught first round; he faces Sweden's Thomas Enqvist. Today's fare on the centre court begins with two big hitters, Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, against Australia's Mark Philippoussis.