Regaining the world No 1 spot two days ago seems to have induced altitude dizziness in Lindsay Davenport. The 6ft 2in Californian was able to offer little more than a token fight as her run of five straight victories over Martina Hingis was rudely terminated 6-3 6-2 in the final of the Ericsson Open last night.
Hingis needed only 58 minutes to collect a title she last won three years ago. Davenport, who injured her left foot in a marathon semi-final against Sandrine Testud, barely bothered to move to some of Hingis's passing shots in the second set and afterwards apologised to the crowd for not giving them a better match.
"I would have swapped the No 1 spot for victory today," said the Wimbledon and Australian champion, who has never won here. "Now I need a little time off." The defeat was only her second against 35 victories in a run going back to last September.
Davenport slipped into early trouble, falling 4-0 behind before she started to get her booming ground strokes more on target. But her unforced errors mounted throughout a disappointing contest and totalled 40 by the end, including four double faults.
Hingis's calm authority was disrupted only once by an outrageous line call at set point in the first set. Hingis walked towards her seat as a Davenport forehand sailed six inches long, convinced the set was over but the ball was judged good. However, she did not let the incident upset her, won the set on another wild forehand from her opponent and when she broke for a 3-2 lead in the second set Davenport appeared to give up.
Just as with Wimbledon and the US Open, there is a territorial quality about Pete Sampras's attitude towards this tournament. He has won more matches (39) than any other player, been champion twice, reached at least the semi-finals six times in the past eight years. That sort of thing. The phrase distinguished patron comes to mind.
So it was a decided eye-opener to see a sweat-soaked Sampras revving up the crowd, urging them to get behind him, begging for their backing in his semi-final against Lleyton Hewitt, the teenager with the best record in men's tennis this year. In the end, Sampras prevailed 6-3 3-6 6-1 and plays Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, who beat Andre Agassi in straight sets, in today's final. But it was closer than the score indicates.
Sampras's praise for Hewitt, at 19 the youngest semi-finalist in the event's history, was deservedly warm. "Lleyton has all the intangibles to be a champion. He's got the attitude, he's got the game, he's got the heart. It seems to me he's going to get better and better. He fights very hard, that's what makes him so difficult to play. He's very quick and doesn't give you an inch."
Hewitt is also a non-stop talker, yattering away to himself as he goes about his business, thrusting the head forward like an arrogant rooster and pumping his fist to get himself motivated. With the additional factor that he wore his night-game gear, all black, he was custom-made for the baddie role.
But it didn't happen. The young ones in the crowd got behind the Australian, though no one seemed to know his first name. Those familiar, beseeching screeches of "Peeeeete" which filled Crandon Park were matched by yells of "Hewitt". The first set offered little hope for Hewitt or his supporters. "For the first set and a few games Pete was unbelievable," said Hewitt. "He served great. That's as well as I've seen him hit the ball in a while. It was the Pete Sampras of old, that's for sure."
Then in the second set Sampras started missing a few first serves and Hewitt pounced. "I started getting to his second serves and also started reading his first serve a lot better." Two breaks of serve levelled the contest, setting up that memorable climax early in the third set.
From 3-1 in the third, Sampras kicked in another gear and the good folk of Florida went away happy. Hewitt, who doesn't take kindly to losing, picked up his bag and stalked off. Pete's next opponent, the Brazilian they call Guga, is of sunnier disposition but also playing beautifully right now. Pete may yet be in need of another bit of crowd appeal.
Ericsson Open Results
Women Singles Final
(1) Martina Hingis (Swit) def. (2) Lindsay Davenport (US) 6-3, 6-2.
Men Doubles Final
Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde (Aus) def. Martin Damm (Cz Rep) and Dominik Hrbaty (Slovak) 6-3, 6-4.