Wimbledon `97: Hingis pulls rank on Kournikova

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The problem with history is that you cannot guarantee where it is going to happen. Britain waited for the momentous to unfold on No 1 Court yesterday, only for Centre Court to provide. It was like setting up your deckchair on the wrong Spanish beach and missing the Battle of Trafalgar.

All England expected; 16-year-old Martina Hingis did her duty, becoming the youngest Wimbledon finalist this century. If she wins tomorrow only Lottie Dod, at 15 years 285 days in 1887, will have been a younger champion. The downside of Henmania has meant she is not getting the acclaim she deserves.

Hingis beat Anna Kournikova 6-3, 6-2 in 1hr 2min that was not as easy as the scoreline suggests. The Russian possibly deserved a set, but Hingis is not in the habit of letting those slip, as six unblemished matches at Wimbledon testifies. "No one is going to ask what the score was," the No 1 seed said. "It's just a victory.

"It wasn't one of my best performances, but she really went for her shots. I was like, `Oh God, another winner'." More importantly, the flat trajectory of Kournikova's fierce shots left little margin of error and it was a line she frequently crossed.

Nevertheless, Kournikova, also 16, has improved so much during the Championships that it has not required a fanciful imagination to foresee her rivalry with Hingis developing into the clash of the titans that was Navratilova versus Evert. Martina won that series and another Martina yesterday went 2-0 up in the current one.

Hingis, for one, saw the latest victory as an instalment in a saga rather than a definitive statement. "When we posed for the photographers after the toss I said `This is not the first time and I'm sure there are going to be many more times'. Everyone is making a big rivalry of it. Until now I've beaten her at the great tournaments so she still has something to improve, but she's getting better and better."

The Russian girl is so new to this game that her career earnings are $205,659 (pounds 127,000), which would keep most teenagers in Spice Girls paraphernalia but is laughably small in a sport where Hingis, just nine months older, has accumulated more than $3m (pounds 1.8m). Experience was bound to count sometime against her at Wimbledon, her second Grand Slam tournament, and that time was yesterday.

"I'm sure I'll learn something from this match," Kournikova said before looking at the positive. "I've had a great tournament, I'm really happy the way I played. It's unbelievable I got to the semi-finals. I was dreaming about this."

When she wakes up to reality it is safe to say an urgent drill on the training schedule at Nick Bollettieri's camp in Florida will be getting a serve to land in the box in such a way it does not crave to be walloped. Hingis hardly threatened Goran Ivanisevic's record of 46 aces in a match either but at least her opponent had to think a bit. The only problem when facing Kournikova yesterday was whether to go for the winner on the backhand or the forehand side.

The first six games went to the receiver so that when Hingis actually clung on to her serve you felt a turning point had arrived. So, clearly, did Kournikova who suddenly began to grimace with an injury to her left hip.

What was really hurting her, however, was the innocuous nature of her opening shot. Kournikova has a wonderfully free forehand, about as exuberant a shot as you will see in tennis, but it amounts to little if she is chasing the point rather than dominating it.

Hingis sent her opponent from side to side, wearing her down with accuracy as much as power, so that if there are complaints about a trench at either end of the court you know who to blame. Kournikova returns like a boomerang she cannot retrieve indefinitely.

Kournikouva did not win a serve until she was 3-1 down in the second set, by which time Hingis had her gaze fixed on the finishing line. The last three games were over in a flash.

For Hingis the chance is there to erase the memory of her losing the French Open final to Iva Majoli last month, her only defeat this year in 43 matches. "In Paris I was already tired when I stepped on to the court. I wasn't in great shape. This time I'm really looking forward to it."