Tennis : Hingis the history girl

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The Independent Online
History was made at the Australian Open here yesterday and may continue to be rewritten this year by a 16-year-old Swiss girl of outrageous talent.

Martina Hingis became the youngest Grand Slam champion this century, beating the unseeded Mary Pierce 6-2 6-2 in the final, and was immediately installed as No 2 in the world rankings. If she deposes Steffi Graf as tennis queen this year, she will become the youngest ever No 1.

At 16 years, three months and 26 days, Hingis is three months younger than Monica Seles was when she won the 1990 French Open, also as a 16- year-old. She completed the double yesterday, having claimed her second Grand Slam doubles crown with Natasha Zvereva on Friday (Hingis and Helena Sukova are the reigning Wimbledon champions).

The only player younger than her to have won a Grand Slam title is Lottie Dod, who won Wimbledon in 1887 aged 15 years and 10 months, but Dod had a minimal number of competitors in the draw, and for this reason - and many others - there is no comparison with the Swiss wunderkind.

"It's just another record for me," she said afterwards in her characteristic manner of exuding confidence without crossing the border into obnoxious arrogance. "I've had so many records already. When I was a junior I was the youngest junior winner of the French Open and Wimbledon, and then I won the doubles at Wimbledon as the youngest. But this is just great, it's the highest level in tennis, and it's just a great feeling to be out there playing great tennis."

In retrospect Hingis sealed the title in the opening game. What Pierce feared most was a swift start for the Swiss, and the Frenchwoman was blessed with three break points on Hingis's serve. But all three went begging, and from then on Pierce seemed to lose confidence in her ability to beat her ultra-confident opponent.

At 5-0 journalists were scouring the record books for the shortest Grand Slam final (though Steffi Graf's record of 6-0 6-0 in 33 minutes against Zvereva in the 1988 French final was never under threat).

Hingis took the first set in 27 minutes, but after that Pierce began to score with some of her shots. Her one chance of clawing the match back was to stay with the 16-year-old in the second set and hope that the finishing line - in the form of the Daphne Akhurst Trophy which was placed tantalisingly in view at courtside - would cause some butterflies in the young tummy.

That did happen for a while, but when Pierce blew three points to level at 3-3 and dropped her serve for 4-2, the match was over. Hingis played the last two games majestically, almost teasing her less athletic opponent with smooth ground shots, perfectly judged lobs and crisp volleys. She wrapped up the victory just as the clock struck the hour, ending a match that was never a contest.

On this form, yesterday's title should be the first of many. Martina Navratilova's total of 18 Slams should be attainable. Steffi Graf may also be keen to win another couple to put her current total of 21 further out of reach, and Margaret Court's overall record of 24 must be under threat over the next 15 years.

All this, of course, assumes Hingis stays fit, healthy and motivated. It also depends on how much opposition comes from her generation - Anna Kournikova and Venus Williams could be the biggest threats among her contemporaries, and it seems unlikely Monica Seles will go the rest of her career without another Grand Slam title or two.

Of wider interest, there may be concerns about what signals a 16-year- old Grand Slam champion might send out to pushy parents of promising girls. Two years ago the women's tour tightened its rules to reduce the risk of youngsters burning out; 14-year-olds are no longer allowed to turn professional, and there are now limitations on playing schedules for any youngsters up to their 18th birthday. Hingis scraped in under the old rules by three months, which strongly suggests that the record she set yesterday might stand ad infinitum.

The Corel WTA Tour has no reservations about Hingis's success. A spokesperson said yesterday that Hingis was an exception, but that the age rules introduced two years ago would stand and had met with widespread approval and respect.

The problem is that the casualties of the "too fast too soon" syndrome are not so much the high-profile burn-out cases like Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Jennifer Capriati, because they have all tasted glory in some shape or form. The dilemma lies with the thousands of girls whose parents push them from a young age, inspired by the likes of Austin, Seles and Hingis winning Grand Slam titles in their teens, and then seeing their offspring fall short, by which time the best years of their childhood may be over.

Hingis was clearly ready for her first title; no one should doubt her worthiness as a champion. One hopes success does not come at the cost of the notion that a player can still be a world-class athlete in her late 20s.

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