It was, without a doubt, the cruellest of Martina Hingis's three consecutive Australian Open final defeats. Four times she came within one point of claiming the silver trophy that glinted enticingly from the edge of the court. In the end, she was beaten not by Jennifer Capriati's superior tennis but by nerves and a heat so fierce that it was exhausting just to sit still.
It was 46C on the surface of Rod Laver Arena and both women struggled, but Hingis – who had led by a set and 4-0 – suffered more. She gasped for air, leant on the scoreboard, fled to the shade of the players' tunnel and even lay down at the back of the court during one change of ends.
Her demise was painful to behold and will be brutally difficult to come to terms with, despite her brave words at the post-match ceremonies. For Hingis – vanquished 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 by the reigning champion – has not won a Grand Slam for three years and, after failing to make the breakthrough on Saturday, it is questionable whether she ever can do so again.
The Australian Open is the 21-year-old Swiss player's favourite tournament. Three of her four Grand Slam triumphs took place here at Melbourne Park, and this year's Open was her best opportunity since 1999 to add another title to her collection.
Drawn to meet both Williams sisters, Hingis surely heaved a sigh of relief when Serena withdrew with an ankle injury before her first match and Venus was eliminated by Monica Seles in the quarter-finals. Another formidable competitor, Lindsay Davenport, did not take part because of a chronic knee injury.
Even the top-seeded Capriati, who overcame Hingis here last year to secure her first Grand Slam title, was not performing at full throttle because of a hip complaint. Hingis, meanwhile, was playing impressive tennis after a three-month break following ankle surgery and claimed to have rediscovered her belief in herself.
Finding herself once again in the role of runner-up, the No 3 seed refused to blame the heat for her failure to convert four match points in the second set. "The conditions are the same for both, so you've just got to make the best of it," she said.
"I have to look positively into the future. I've been playing great tennis, so now I've got to build on that to get even better and be able to close out the match next time. I'm disappointed, but there's next week, next tournament, next Grand Slam. I've exceeded my expectations here and proved to myself that I have the chance to beat anybody out there."
Capriati, the first woman to win a Grand Slam final after being down match point since Margaret Court beat Lesley Turner at the 1962 French Open, said: "She was pretty close to getting revenge on me for last year and I really don't know how I won today.
"It was really hard to breathe out there, the air was so thick. But there's always something left in reserve and I made myself go to the max." Hingis's nerve failed her at crucial moments throughout. After dominating the first set, she twice failed to serve it out, surrendering three games to the 25-year-old American. In the second set, she broke Capriati's serve twice for a 4-0 lead but – as the conditions took their toll – was broken back twice.
The Swiss player broke again for 5-3, but in the next game wasted her first match point and then double-faulted to give Capriati a break. She threw away two more match points at 6-5 and another in a tie-break that turned into a test of stamina, with both women swigging water and retreating to the shade between points.
Once Capriati had the second set under her belt, everything changed. For her, winning was now a real possibility. A debilitated Hingis, meanwhile, gave up. She broke serve in the third set but was immediately broken back, and foot-faulted three times in one vital game.
"I didn't really believe in it any more," said Hingis, who won a gruelling three-set doubles final with Anna Kournikova the previous day. "I just wanted to have it behind me, no matter what. I didn't care at that point. After the second set, I thought 'no way I've got to go out there again'. I couldn't move any more. My head was all over the place."
Capriati, who went on to win the French Open last year, rated her victory as "definitely my most unique". She added: "I'm not looking for a place in history. I'm just looking for titles." Asked whether her joy was tempered by sympathy for Hingis, she replied: "No. I don't think she would be feeling sorry for me."
Men's singles, final: T JOHANSSON (Swe) bt M SAFIN (Rus) 3-6 6-4 6-4 7-6.
Women's singles, final: J CAPRIATI (US) bt M HINGIS (Swit) 4-6 7-6 6-2.
Men's doubles, final: M KNOWLES (Baha) and D NESTOR (Can) bt M Llodra (Fr) and F Santoro (Fr) 7-6 6-3.
Women's doubles, final: M HINGIS (Swit) and A KOURNIKOVA (Rus) bt D HANTUCHOVA (Slovak) and A SANCHEZ-VICARIO (Sp) 6-2 6-7 6-1.
Mixed doubles, final: K Ullyett (Zim) and D Hantuchova (Slovak) bt G Etlis (Arg) and P Suarez (Arg) 6-3 6-2.
Boys' singles, final: C MOREL (Fr) bt T REID (Aus) 6-4 6-4.
Boys' doubles, final: R HENRY and T REID (Aus) bt F Mergea and H Tecau (Rom) w/o.
Girls' singles, final: B STRYCOVA (Cz Rep) bt M Sharapova (Rus) 6-0 7-5.
Girls' doubles, final: G DULKO (Arg) and A WIDJAJA (Indon) bt S KUZNETSOVA (Rus) and M MEZAK (Croa) 6-2 5-7 6-4.
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