Tennis: Wimbledon - Courtcraft comes to rescue of hesitant Hingis

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THE OMENS were not good when it was noted that among the guests in the Royal Box were Mr and Mrs Flood. Fortunately it did not come to that, and the aforementioned High Commissioner for Australia and his wife were able to enjoy play between the showers.

A damp Tuesday greeted the traditional "Ladies day," and it was perhaps as well that nobody reminded Martina Hingis of what befell Steffi Graf on a wet and cold second day of the Championships in 1994.

On that occasion, Graf made the sort of history she would prefer to have kept off her CV by becoming the first defending champion to lose in the first round of the the women's singles. The usually all-conquering German was defeated by the American serve and volleyer, Lori McNeil, who went on to reach the semi-finals.

McNeil, ranked No 127 in the world, had to rely on a wild card to get through the gates this year, and has the distinction of being the oldest player in the women's draw, aged 34. She spent much of yesterday wondering when the rain would go away. Around tea-time she was told that her first- round match against the Belgian Els Callens would not be played, in common with other matches scheduled third or fourth on the outside courts.

Hingis, 17, who last year became the youngest champion of the century, made a tentative opening to her title defence in defeating the American Lisa Raymond, 7-5, 6-3. Raymond, to be fair, is a difficult opponent. She narrowly missed a seeding with a ranking of No 19.

Last year, when Hingis dominated the majority of her matches, she became familiar with Raymond's feisty play, losing the last of their three previous matches in the quarter-finals of an indoor tournament in her adoptive home city, Zurich.

Whether this played on Hingis's mind, or whether she was slightly concerned about the odd twinge in her right wrist, she did not have the better of the early exchanges, finding herself forced to save a break point in the opening game and three more in the fifth.

It was not until Raymond double-faulted at 3-4 that Hingis had her first break point. The American compounded her serving errors by slicing a backhand over the baseline.

Serving out the set was not the formality for Hingis the spectators might have anticipated. She slipped while attempting to prevent her opponent from passing her with a forehand for 30-40, and netted a backhand on the break point.

Raymond managed to salvage two set points in the 10th game, the first with her only ace of the match and the second by forcing Hingis to net a forehand, and then failed to convert a break point at 5-5, slicing a backhand wide.

In winning the 12th game Hingis showed the first real sign of the court- craft and shot-making that has taken her to No 1 in the world, producing a splendid winning forehand down the line from a deep position to create to set points. The first one was converted when Raymond was lured into netting a backhand after 52 minutes.

Nine minutes later, with Hingis leading 2-1 on serve in the second set, the players retreated to the changing-room and the covers were on and off the court for an hour and a half before the match resumed.

Hingis, keen to finish the job, found Raymond difficult to subdue. The American saved three break points before missing with a backhand down the line after a spirited rally on the fourth. Hingis held to love for 4-1, and then battled with Raymond through four more break points before the American hit a backhand long on the fifth.

When it came to serving out the match, Hingis again found Raymond hard to shift. The Swiss had three match points at 5-1, Raymond saving the first with a splendid backhand pass, the second with a forehand and the third by confidently returning a second serve. Another crisp return took the American to break point, and Hingis steered a backhand over the baseline.

Although Raymond held to love, Hingis did not fail with her fourth match point, delivering a winning serve to conclude the match after 86 minutes.

"I expected it to be tough," Hingis said. "I knew she would have confidence to play her game, and that is what she did very well. In the first couple of games I didn't know what to do. You play on Centre Court after one year, and I didn't have much practice."

The rain delay did not appear to affect her, chiefly because she had already managed to work her way back into the rhythm of grass-court tennis. "I just felt more comfortable," she said. "I was 2-1 up, so I was more confident going out there again. I started to feel the ball much better."

While players sometimes theorise about the benefits of a testing opening match, especially in the Grand Slam tournaments, Hingis did not go along with the notion on this occasion. "I would rather have easier matches, like at the French or Australian Open," she said. "When you play Wimbledon, you do not want to play the No 19 player you lost to last time you played her. I had to give everything to just get through the first round. I hope now it is going to be easier for the next two or three rounds."

Hingis acknowledged that she senses a difference in her approach this time around. "Last year I was still kind of the underdog," she said. "I was still seeded No 1 when I won the Australian Open and made the French finals, but on grass nobody expected me to win it or gave me the credit. And now I am the favourite, since [Anna] Kournikova is not in and [Mary] Pierce lost, and nobody knows what is going to happen with Steffi. It is a quite different feeling to come back here as a defending champion with the opening round. It feels good."

There was one disappointment for Hingis yesterday. Her boyfriend, the Spaniard Julian Alonso, was beaten in straight sets in the first round by Germany's Nicolas Kiefer

Yesterday at Wimbledon

Rafter survives a third-set lapse to see off Heuberger

Novotna breezes past fellow Czech Kleinova in straight sets

Rusedski level 1-1 in sets with Draper when rain stopped play