TENNIS : Hingis off mark with a flourish

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Jim Courier was saying, the problem with winning sets 6-0 is ``it's hard to do better than that; it is often cause for a let-down". Martina Hingis, aged 14, discovered this to be the case - but remedied the situation - after following the former Australian Open champion on to Court No 1 to play her first match in a Grand Slam tournament here yesterday.

The latest prodigy could hardly have wished for a more auspicious start. In winning the opening six games in 19 minutes, she allowed her American opponent, Jolene Watanabe, only 11 points.

Watanabe wore dark glasses, like a prize fighter after a bad beating. The image was deceptive. The short, 26-year-old Californian recovered and forced the young Swiss to battle through lengthy rallies. Hingis had to save two set points before winning, 6-0, 7-6, Watanabe double-faulting on match point at 2-6 in the tie-break.

Not that Hingis, already No 73 in the world after playing only four tour events, had felt threatened by an opponent ranked 17 places below her. "In the second set I let go a little bit," she said. "That's why it was close. I was never scared of losing the match."

Indeed, the youngest player ever to win a match at the championships endeavoured to treat the occasion as just another day on the courts. "Even in the morning it was never in my mind that this was my first big tournament," she said. "But for the big stadium, it was no different from any other match."

"A capacity crowd of 6,000 responded enthusiastically to Hingis's impresssive range of shots and her capability to keep her composure when the points were keenly contested.

The debut was sandwiched between matches involving players in the process of rehabilitation: Courier, after coming to terms with psychological problems associated with loss of status, and Australia's own Pat Cash, putting his battered body to the test once again.

Courier's 6-0 set came in the middle of a victory against the Czech David Rikl. Like Hingis, Courier secured a tie-break, 7-2, in order to win in straight sets. The ninth seed's form and confidence, restored by success in a recent tour event in Adelaide,suggests that the former world No 1 has the appetite to extend an impressive sequence at Flinders Park: consecutive wins followed by a place in the semi-finals.

"I'm trying to get back up the mountain," the Floridan said. "It's a lot more fun going up the mountain than trying to stay on top of it."

There was more philosophising from the 29-year-old Cash, whose attempt to succeed in his first major match for a year was weakened by a virus. This was disappointing for the spectators, who saw the wild card's bright start against the American Alex O'Brien fade, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Before turning his thoughts to his next tournament, in Dubai, the 1987 Wimbledon champion, currently ranked No 526, considered the state of the game.

"I keep hearing things about changing the rackets and speeding up the game and stuff like that," he said. "But every one of the guys who serves fast is over 6ft 2in. You can't do anything about that. That's why they are big servers. I think any player above six foot should stand in a hole, or get their ankles cut off, which is my preference."

Cash's proposal may gain support from the Lawn Tennis Association with respect to the 6ft 2in Jan Kroslak. The 20-year-old Slovakian, a member of the Davis Cup team due to play beleaguered Britain in April, served 21 aces in defeating the American Jared Palmer, 6-2, 6-2, 6-7, 4-6, 6-0.

Kroslak, in common with Hingis, was making his first appearance in a Grand Slam event. His second appearance will be against Pete Sampras, the world No 1, who opened his defence of the title with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-0 win against Italy's Gianluca Pozzi.

Sampras and his coach, Tim Gullickson, ask only for good health, both having had more than their share of injuries and sickness since the triumph at Wimbledon last July. A start similar to last year will suit them fine.

"For the first four months I only lost two matches," Sampras recounted. I was just on a roll, winning a lot of matches, not really playing that well. I was basically unbeatable for a while. I felt unbeatable, and if you feel that way, you are really tough to beat."

For the record, the two players who demonstrated that Sampras was beatable also made an encouraging start to the tournament. Karim Alami, of Morocco, making his first appearance, defeated Brad Gilbert, Andre Agassi's coach, in four sets, and Jacco Eltingh, of the Netherlands, beat Mats Wilander in straight sets.

"When I was playing at my best, I focused on losses," Wilander said, "and now I'm not playing my best I have to focus on wins. That's the only thing that keeps me going."

Those who complain that there are no big names in the Aussie game evidently have not heard of Mark Philippoussis. The 18-year-old son of a Greek Melbourne taxi driver gave Stefan Edberg a fright before the sixth seed edged through, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 7-5.

Philippoussis, a wild card entry, ranked No 274, possesses a powerful serve, which has earned him the nickname "Scud". This will greatly assist headline writers should he fulfil his potential. He was the runner-up in the junior singles event at Wimbledonlast July, after which he was invited by Ivan Lendl's coach, the Australian Tony Roche, to spend 10 days training with the former No 1.

"I really felt at home tonight," he said. "It's the best I've played. I wanted to show I'll be a player in the future. I showed I can mix it with these players now."

At 6ft 4in, he is obviously a candidate for the Cash solution.

Courier's theory concerning the 6-0 syndrome affected Mary Pierce only marginally. The Canadian-born Frenchwoman conceded but one game after winning the first six against Tina Krizan, from Solvenia.

Pierce was asked if she had seen the 95th-ranked Krizan play. She said she had not, because Nick Bollettieri, her illustrious coach, had been to scout her. "But he watched the wrong player."

Who did he watch?

"We still don't know."

Results, Sporting Digest, page 31