Tennis: History'sage of Hingis

Martinez runs her close, but the Swiss phenomenon conquers Australia again
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The Independent Online
MARTINA HINGIS created another piece of tennis history in winning yesterday's women's singles final at the Australian Open. Her 6-3 6-3 victory over Conchita Martinez makes her the youngest player to defend a Grand Slam title this century, and the second youngest-ever behind Lottie Dod, the Wimbledon champion in 1887 and 88 when there were only eight players in the draw.

Hingis was strongly favoured to win, but the scoreline belies the struggle it was for the top seed and world No 1. She was battling not only against the Spaniard but also a cold, which sapped her energy and kept the outcome in doubt right to the end. In contrast to last year's energetic figure who bounded across the court to embrace her mother, Melanie, Hingis this time seemed to be using the last drops of fuel to trudge across and touch hands with her constant companion and coach.

"It was a lot harder than last year," she said afterwards. "There were so many different expectations of me, plus pressure from myself, and I had a much harder draw this time. I had to play Kournikova in the third round, Pierce in the quarter-final which was the final last year, Huber in the semi-finals, so it wasn't very easy to get through. I would say this is the hardest Grand Slam I have won so far, which makes it more satisfying than the other ones."

It is a measure of Hingis's phenomenal confidence, ability and composure that she is in a position to compare this title with three other Grand Slam successes (last year's Australian, Wimbledon and US Open). Even just four months after her 17th birthday, she is proving one of the great figures in tennis, and such is the fun she has with non-tennis pursuits that there is no sign of burn-out. If some tennis watchers felt she might struggle to defend her titles this year, she has made a good start towards proving them wrong.

With Hingis blowing her nose at every change of ends and taking a while to recover from the long rallies which characterised the match, it was easy to forget that the rallies were also draining Martinez, herself not 100 per cent fit. She said she was not unduly bothered by the groin muscle she had strapped during her semi-final against Lindsay Davenport, but admitted that it was sore. Martinez may now rue that she was not at her best, because Hingis was beatable.

Yet far from being a survival of the fittest, the match had some quality tennis. It started with a 23-stroke rally, and contained one epic exchange in the fourth game of the second set which Hingis finished with an inspirational forehand. It left both players gasping for air.

Martinez's best chance came early in the second set. Despite losing the first in 40 minutes, the 1994 Wimbledon champion had served notice that she would make Hingis earn her victory. While the Swiss was winning the important points, Martinez was keeping her running with a mixture of looping topspin groundstrokes, delicate slice on the backhand, and some lethal forehands and topspin backhands to finish off points.

It meant that, come the start of the second set, Martinez was in a position to capitalise on her best phase of the match. She led 2-1 and had points for a 3-1 lead, which she should have converted. But once Hingis had snuffed out that revival and taken three games on the run for 4-2, Martinez started to look tired.

The match still could have turned as Martinez led 40-15 at 3-5 down, but Hingis ran off four consecutive points to clinch her fourth Grand Slam title in an hour and 26 minutes.

The 25-year-old Spaniard, who has now lost her last three matches against Hingis, was satisfied with her fortnight's work. "It's a great start to the year," she said, reflecting on a miserable 1997, "and this is going to be good for my confidence. It has been great to have the feeling again of being in a final, stepping out there on a Saturday with such a good crowd."

After the match, Hingis confirmed she would not be forming a regular doubles partnership with her close friend Mirjana Lucic, who became the Australian Open's youngest champion at 15 when she and Hingis won the women's doubles as wildcard entrants. "I enjoy playing doubles if I have a partner like Mirjana," she said, "but Jana Novotna and I have agreed we are going to make up the rest of the year."

l Hingis also revealed she would be taking part in the Compaq Grand Slam Cup (29 September to 4 October), thereby pre- empting an announcement expected on Tuesday that women will feature for the first time in the $6m (pounds 3.75m) tournament. The non-tour event, which started in 1990 amid wrangling between the International Tennis Federation and the Association of Tennis Professionals, has featured the best 16 men from the four Grand Slam events; the announcement in Munich is expected to confirm reports that the men's field will be reduced to make way for a women's event.