Tennis: Hingis looking over her shoulder

US Open: Men's and women's titles up for grabs as challengers, old and new, queue up to make an impression
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The Independent Online
A WAXWORK of Martina Hingis was wheeled into the interview room at Flushing Meadow, and the world No 1 observed that the figure was "smiling and happy". Shortly afterwards it was taken apart and sent to Madame Tussaud's, the body by freight, the head as hand luggage.

Hingis' rivals have similar plans for the 17-year-old Swiss when she defends the women's singles title at the United States Open, which starts today. "This year the players became much stronger," Hingis said. "You have the younger players, who are now more experienced. And the older ones started practising again! They want [the success] back. Right now the competition is very big."

Since Hingis successfully defended the Australian Open title in January, defeating Conchita Martinez in the final, the old guard have staged a revival. Arantxa Sanchez- Vicario won the French Open and Jana Novotna finally fulfilled her ambitions at Wimbledon.

In tennis circles it is still possible to mention Monica without reference to Bill. Seles defeated Hingis emphatically in the semi-finals in Paris. Steffi Graf is also looking fit and confident again, completing her US Open preparation with victories against Lindsay Davenport and Novotna and winning a tournament in New Haven.

"I think Monica especially is very dangerous," Hingis said. "She knows what she wants in life right now. Last year, or the year before, she would just play, but she wasn't really 100 per cent into it. But right now she only focuses on that."

Davenport, the tall, powerful No 2 seed, also impresses Hingis. "She's very aggressive and this court is pretty good for her, not too fast, not too slow. She's improved her serve and lost so much weight, so she moves better. She lost to Steffi the other day. I can't imagine Lindsay losing to Steffi after what happened in their recent matches. Steffi can play very well still, and she seems to be in a good way. We'll see at this Grand Slam."

Hingis won the third of her Grand Slam titles here last year, out-classing the American Venus Williams, three months her senior, in the final. Williams' game has matured to the point where it is beginning to match her athleticism.

Not to be upstaged by the Hingis waxwork, a huge Reebok poster of Williams' face covers the side of a building near the 59th Street Bridge. "It's a nice picture," Williams said. "I think I picked it out." She also helped design her latest line of tennis clothing. "I have seven different dresses," Williams said, adding pointedly, "that means I'll have to play seven matches". So she fancies her chances? "I think my chances are great." According to two New York Times writers, the most exciting moment of last year's US Open was the shoulder-to-shoulder confrontation between Williams and the Romanian Irina Spirlea during a change-over in their semi-final. The dust-up is recounted as a symbol of the feisty nature of the women's game. "All the men did was hit rockets past each other," one writer said.

That hardly does justice to the efforts of Pat Rafter and Greg Rusedski, who battled through two weeks of difficult matches to contest the men's singles final. Rafter, by winning the title, restored Australia's prestige. Rusedski, the first British man to reach a singles final at the US Championships since Fred Perry in 1936, went on to be ranked No 4 in the world and won a variety of Sports Personality of the Year awards. None of that counted for much over here.

Rafter, whose recent form has placed him high among the favourites, again denied Rusedski when they met on Saturday in the semi-finals of the Hamlet Cup, in Long Island.

Rusedski took heart from an encouraging build-up to the US Open in the two tournaments he has played following a lengthy spell on the sidelines nursing an ankle injury. The sixth seed will need to be confident for an opening match against the enigmatic South African, Wayne Ferreira.

The Americans are hoping to cheer a revitalised Andre Agassi all the way to, and possibly beyond, a quarter-final meeting with Pete Sampras, the world No 1.

During the weekend Sampras practised with Petr Korda, the man who eliminated him in the fourth round last year. Watched by an enthusiastic gallery, they exchanged shots in the Louis Armstrong Stadium, which has been scaled- down since the Arthur Ashe Stadium took centre stage last year.

Sampras, who is trying to equal Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam singles championships, won his four US Open titles in the Louis Armstrong Stadium, the first as a 19-year-old in 1990.

That was the year which produced eight different Grand Slam singles champions for the first time since 1966 - Ivan Lendl and Graf (Australian Open), Andres Gomez and Seles (French Open), Stefan Edberg and Martina Navratilova (Wimbledon), Sampras and Gabriela Sabatini (US Open).

For that to happen this year, the following players must be defeated during the coming fortnight - Korda and Hingis, Carlos Moya and Sanchez- Vicario, Sampras and Novotna. Which leaves plenty of scope for contenders old and new.

In a year of tennis anniversaries, it is sad to learn that the graceful former home of the US Championships, Forest Hills, may be sold for building purposes.

Although nothing definite has been decided, the odour of commerce is unmistakably in the air. It was at Forest Hills 60 years ago that Don Budge completed the original Grand Slam, and 30 years since the US Championships went open, with victories for Ashe and Virginia Wade. The Championship moved to Flushing Meadow 20 years ago. But, as Billie-Jean King said longingly of Forest Hills: "Sitting there and watching the sun go down behind the stadium - you'll never see another sight like that in tennis."