Tennis: Wimbledon '97: Hingis seizes the moment

John Roberts sees the youngest singles winner this century display a maturity beyond her years
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The 16-year-old Martina Hingis admitted that during the opening set of Saturday's historic triumph she felt like a beginner. The beauty of it is that a beginner is precisely what she is, albeit one blessed with such an abundance of natural talent and tactical intelligence that, with luck and continued sound guidance, she will only get better.

What the Swiss prodigy had achieved would take time to digest, which is probably why she mused that, "It might be that I'm too young to win this title." Perhaps she is. Only time will tell, although one reason for the crowd's sympathetic support for her opponent, the 28-year-old Jana Novotna, suggested that Hingis had arrived not a moment too soon.

Novotna, a wonderful player with an attacking style tailored for the lawns, saw her quest for a Grand Slam singles title frustrated yet again.

Watching from the Royal Box, along with the vigilant Duchess of Kent, was a player whose experience of Wimbledon epitomised the false assumption that success can be placed in storage for collection at a later date. Youth proved to be no guarantee for Ken Rosewall.

The Australian was aged 19 when he lost to the 32-year-old Jaroslav Drobny in 1954, "Drob" having long been adopted by the Wimbledon crowds, who could not bear to imagine that he would leave empty-handed. Three more finals later, the 39-year-old Rosewall was defeated by the 21-year-old Jimmy Connors, having exhausted himself in winning the semi-final against Stan Smith.

Granted, Rosewall was missing from the Championships for a number of years after turning pro in the mid-1960s. None the less, having won every major singles title except the original, he would subscribe to the view that each opportunity should be taken as it comes.

That is what Hingis has done in becoming the youngest singles champion of the century (16 years and 279 days). Only Lottie Dod was younger (15 years and 285 days), although international tennis did not exist when the Cheshire cotton-broker's daughter won three matches to take the title in 1887.

Dazzled by Novotna's brilliant start to the final - "She was all over the net, and I was in shock" - Hingis gradually settled her nerves, steadied her serves and turned the contest with an astonishing range of passing shots as the Czech continued to be drawn to the net like a moth to the immolating flame. A moth, it transpired, that was not in the best of condition to begin with.

Flushed and weary as the match progessed, Novotna was handicapped by a strained abdominal muscle. Having threatened to dismiss Hingis as if the world No 1 was no more threatening than a ballgirl who had picked up a racket, Novotna not only recovered from losing the second set but shaped as if she would prevail come what may.

Hingis, unable to convert any of five break points in the opening game of the final set, proved she was not a ballgirl by tossing away her racket after being broken to 0-2. She then replaced the weapon with one more tightly strung, and took control, winning 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 after an hour and 50 minutes.

"I was lucky I won today," Hingis said. "It was a really good chance for me to win the tournament, but Jana must have thought the same thing about Steffi [Graf, who was absent because of injury]. Jana beat better players than I did, but all of a sudden all the players which were in my half of the draw lost, so I didn't even beat one of the seeded players to get to the final."

True, but this was not the first time this year that Hingis had demonstrated the versatility of her game in recovering after losing an opening set. It was the sixth time, and two of the matches were against Monica Seles.

Hingis's only defeat this year was by Iva Majoli in straight sets in the final of the French Open, six weeks after Hingis underwent surgery to her left knee after falling from a horse.

She also took a tumble while riding during the Australian Open in January, and comparisons with the American Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly have extended beyond the tennis court. Connolly's career, it will be remembered, was ended by a riding accident.

Concern has been expressed that Hingis takes unnecessary risks, that Martina II, as with Shakespeare's Richard III, is putting up a kingdom for a horse. The counter-argument is that Hingis needs her outside pursuits to relieve the constant demands of tennis.

Lottie Dod, in a more genteel era, was similarly disposed to indulge in a whole range of sports, from archery to the Cresta Run. Hingis, perhaps sensing a bond with her predecessor, was happy to dress up for the Independent, with the co-operation of the All England Club and two of her sponsors.

Sergio Tacchini needed a guarantee that Lookalike Lottie would not have logos on her dress, and Yonex, in Japan, gave permission for her to hold the replica racket, circa 1887, from the Wimbledon Museum. Your correspondent suggested that she might like to wear the dress for the final. She giggled and shook her head.

After the presentations on Saturday, Hingis and Novotna were invited to take champagne with several players, past and present, including Chris Evert, who now commentates for NBC.

When the tray was passed round, Evert declined with thanks. "I can't drink now," she said, "because I have to do TV."

"So what," Hingis said. "I have to play mixed doubles."

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