Tennis: Steffi in full cry for her goodbye

French Open: Emotions run high as retiring Graf storms Paris to heighten the heartache of Hingis
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The Independent Online
THERE WERE tears, there was drama by the bucketful and in the end there was a sixth and final French Open women's title for the ageless Steffi Graf, who last night announced she would not be returning to the red clay of Roland Garros. "This is definitely the last time I will play here, without a doubt," said Graf after the match. "You know, this memory should stay the way it is - it's very special so I'm not going to play here again. This is my last French Open."

Having been driven on to the ropes in the early stages by her 18-year- old opponent, the world No 1 Martina Hingis, the 29-year-old Graf bounced back astonishingly to win the Suzanne Lenglen Cup 4-6 7-5 6-2 in a two-hour, 24-minute classic which saw Hingis's tantrums bring her to the brink of automatic disqualification before serving underarm as a final, desperate tactic at match point.

Hingis, booed relentlessly after a line-call dispute early in the second set, was so upset as Graf took possession of the trophy, that she strode from the court before the presentation ceremony got under way.

Hingis's mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, hurried to the dressing-rooms to drag her daughter back on court, telling her: "You have to go back, you are a great champion." Hingis admitted: "If my mother hadn't been there I wouldn't have gone back." Out on court again, she wept uncontrollably on Melanie's shoulder at the perceived unfairness of it all.

When some semblance of order was restored Graf seized the microphone to thank the audience for their support. "I feel French," she added, close to tears herself. Steffi then turned to the red-eyed Hingis and told her: "Martina, you are going to have many more chances to win, so don't worry about it, please." Easier said than done, Steffi. So confident had Hingis been of winning her first Roland Garros that she admitted later she had prepared a special dress for the trophy award picture session.

Then Margaret Court, whose total of 24 Grand Slam titles is now only two ahead of Graf, presented the prizes and Steffi's cheque for pounds 384,000 as the crowd reluctantly took their leave of an unforgettably dramatic contest.

A storm had delayed the start for an hour, testing the patience of a full house which included Peter Graf, who has served time in prison for tax offences connected with his daughter's earnings. He sat discreetly behind his former wife and Steffi's mother, Heidi, in the VIP section.

Hingis, seeking to complete her collection of Grand Slam titles with victory here, started confidently by breaking serve in the opening game with the tactic so many of Graf's opponents opt for, a concentrated attack on the German's weaker backhand. However, there were early signs of the pressure Hingis was placing on herself when, in the fifth game of the opening set, she smashed her racket on the ground in frustration. The penalty was an automatic, official warning.

By the time she had broken the Graf serve for the third time to go 5- 2 ahead, Hingis was feeling confident enough to attack Graf's formidable forehand, too. Her ability to scuttle, retrieve and rally were priceless assets against an opponent who does not nominate patience as her strongest asset. But one indisputable asset is Graf's fighting quality and she fended off three set points before hitting the fourth in the net. First set to Hingis after 43 minutes.

When the Swiss again broke serve to open the second set Graf's prospects looked as black as the clouds in the Paris sky. Then, with Hingis leading 2-0, came the incident which turned the crowd - and the match - against her. A Hingis forehand which landed adjacent to the baseline was called out. Replays showed the ball was good. Hingis demanded the umpire Anne Lasserre inspect the mark in the clay. When the official's verdict did not meet with her approval she took matters into her own hands, walking into Graf's half of the court to look for herself.

While such an action does not contravene the rules it is certainly against the spirit of the game, and Graf prowled around the back of the court while the shenanigans continued, clearly irritated and upset. Next Hingis, who seemed to have completely lost the plot, sat down and demanded that the referee, Gilbert Ysern, be sent for. When Ysern backed up the decision that Hingis's shot had been out, Hingis was so slow to resume that she was docked a penalty point for wasting time, with the next infraction meaning disqualification.

From 1-3 down in the second set Graf mounted the sort of exhilarating comeback guaranteed to swing the crowd even more noisily behind her, sweeping three successive games as chants of "Steffi, Steffi" echoed around the stadium. Clearly the rallies were taking their toll on Hingis, who ended one exhausting exchange draped over the net like a landed fish.

Still Hingis managed to stay precariously in the driving seat, breaking Graf to lead 5-4 and preparing to serve for the match. She got within three points of the title, which was the cue for another explosive Graf counter-attack in which she not only won another three games in a row to level the match at one set all but then took the first three of the final set, too.

At the start of the third set Hingis went for the tactical ploy of a toilet break and change of clothing, at which Graf promptly took herself off, too. But by now Hingis was clearly upset and as the seven-time French champion Chris Evert said: "I have never seen Steffi use the court so well. It was Steffi at her best."

At 2-5, serving to stave off an astonishing defeat, Hingis resorted to desperation tactics. Facing match point, she served underarm, catching Steffi by surprise. But when Graf got to match point for a second time and she tried another underarm special, it sailed long. Hingis then complained that the noise of the crowd was upsetting her, climbing the steps to the umpire's chair to make her point.

This annoyed Graf so much that she, too, stalked to the chair and told the official, "We play tennis, OK?" We did play tennis, but not much more. One point, to be exact. A Hingis backhand sailed long and what has to be the most dramatic final in the history of this great tournament was over.