Tennis: Majoli simply better

Iva Majoli yesterday turned the form book on its head, inflicting Martina Hingis's first defeat since November and giving women's tennis a further fillip with a shock 6-4 6-2 victory in the French Open final.

A women's singles tournament which has had the edge over the men's almost throughout the fortnight could easily have ended with the predicted second step of a possible Grand Slam for the 16-year-old from Switzerland. As it is, women's tennis can signal two new Grand Slam first-time winners this year for the first time since 1978, and Majoli's triumph is also a boost for Eastbourne, starting a week tomorrow, at which she will now be a big draw.

With Hingis such a strong favourite going into the final, the post-match spotlight inevitably focused on why she lost rather than why Majoli won, but it would be unfair to imply that Majoli had not truly earned Croatia's first Grand Slam title. She played a superb match, finding a simplicity of tactics that will make many of Hingis's victims wonder why they hadn't played like that.

Majoli's tactic was to use the few short balls Hingis gave her to play short angled cross-court strokes. Simple? Well it certainly looked it, although no one who beats Hingis these days can ever say it is easy.

After Hingis' scintillating display of shot-making in the quarter-finals against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and her steely nerve in the semis against Monica Seles, the general feeling around Roland Garros yesterday was that Majoli would be lucky to last an hour. It was with trepidation that the crowd saw her squander a break point in the opening game and six in the fifth.

Yet that fifth game revealed the first signs that Hingis somehow wasn't there. She was making misjudgements on the flight of the ball, she didn't have her usual precision placement on the groundstrokes and she was making errors where she normally doesn't, notably on her serve which is the one stroke that still makes her look like a little girl playing at a club.

It was around this point that Majoli's tactic of driving Hingis wide with short balls began to be effective, and in the ninth game she took the break. If one point can be said to have turned the whole match, it was at 4-4, 30-30. Majoli dominated throughout yet refused two obvious opportunities to come to the net, and it looked as if she had let Hingis back into the rally when the Croat thumped a forehand wide of Hingis's two-hander for break point. A netted service return from Hingis gave Majoli the break and she held serve for 6-4 in 40 minutes.

Had Hingis held for 5-4 things might have been different, but once she was a set adrift she started to feel the intensity of all her running in vain. She was lucky to see Majoli blow three break points in the opening game of the second set, but at 2-2 Majoli did break, at which point the Swiss took a toilet break.

She took her full five minutes, at which point the crowd thought there was some gamesmanship afoot, especially as Hingis was booed back on court, the crowd no doubt aware that Majoli can be fragile after a break in her rhythm. But Majoli had an answer to everything Hingis threw at her. Hingis took a three-minute injury time-out at 2-5 in the second set, but it was only for cramp, no doubt the result of Majoli having made her run so much.

For those who saw a 14-year-old Majoli lose 6-4, 7-6 to Steffi Graf on her debut here five years ago, seeing her take her first Grand Slam title should be no surprise. And if she had been only sporadically on the scene in the subsequent years, that has been because she refused to let tennis to take over her childhood. "I don't think 19 is too late to take your first title," she said - what irony that something like that needs saying at all.

As for the vanquished, she took her defeat with dignity. For a 16-year- old made to feel she was invincible over recent months, yesterday was probably a harsher lesson for her than many wanted to recognise. "I think I'll have a few more chances to win this tournament," she told the crowd. "I think I'll be back again." That certainly goes without saying.