|Friday, September 10
Special to ESPN.com
|NEW YORK -- OK, so Martina Hingis fires around more loose words than loose forehands. She is, in sporting lexicon, cocky. She pouts, she preens, and she pushes the sportsmanship envelope with exquisitely timed bathroom breaks.
Yes, Hingis is easy to dislike, but she can play a little tennis. After punishing Venus Williams 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 Friday night in a positively riveting U.S. Open semifinals match, you have to call her the best player in the women's game.
"I just didn't want final to happen," Hingis admitted later. "Williams-Williams."
As Super Saturday unfolds in Arthur Ashe Stadium, attention will be focused on Andre Agassi and his match against Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Even hulking Todd Martin will draw support from the New York crowd. Hingis? Almost everyone will be pulling for Serena Williams. For Hingis, there has to be an acute case of déjà vu.
It was two years ago, in a galaxy that now seems far, far away, when she met a 17-year-old American named Venus Williams here at the U.S.Open. Williams had never reached a Grand Slam final, but even when she lost 6-0, 6-4, she was the story. Venus Rising. Out of this World. The Planets are Aligned.
Lost in the wake of that victory was the fact that Hingis, at 16, was actually younger than Williams. The 1997 U.S.Open was her third Grand Slam victory of the year. As she meets another 17-year-old American named Williams, playing in her first Grand Slam final on Saturday, Hingis already has amassed five Grand Slam titles. She could have six before her 19th birthday.
Think about that. Venus, for instance, is 19 and hasn't won one.
Hingis' match against Venus Williams was a terrific piece of work because it showed us a side of the Swiss Miss that we hadn't seen. She won this year's Australian Open, but melted down in the French Open and Wimbledon, leaving people to wonder if she had hit the wall, if Davenport and the Williams sisters had too much game, too much power for her clincal game of angles.
Hingis didn't play a match for six weeks, choosing to get herself in unprecedented shape. Her mentor, Chris Evert, has often told her the story of getting serious about conditioning after Martina Navratilova started to overpower her baseline game.
"I love that statement by Martina Navratilova," said Hingis, who was named for Navratilova. "She said, 'Anybody can get in good shape. Anybody can get well physically, good condition.' I never really use that, but I worked on myself and that's where I am today. I wouldn't be in the finals of the U.S. Open without that."
Hingis is not as powerful or athletic as Venus Williams, so her gameplan was to use Williams' pace against her with sharp angles and a lot of side-to-side changeups.
The first set was masterful, moving television analyst John McEnroe to say he had never seen a better set of tennis from a woman, whatever that means. Hingis won six of seven games, making only two unforced errors. The second set was a disaster, as Hingis made 23 unforced errors, allowing Williams back into the match. At that point, it did not look good for Hingis. Despite the rather amazing statistic that Hingis was 22-0 in U.S. Open matches in which she won the first set, Williams seemed to have the momentum.
When Williams broke Hingis in the third game with a swooping, swinging backhand volley, that Williams-Williams final looked like a lock. But then the juice seemed to leak out of Williams' serve. Her legs started cramping and Hingis broke back at 2-all.
With Hingis up 4-3, Williams' body finally broke. At 15-40, not one but two serves bounced short of the net. She immediately called for the trainer. For three minutes she took in fluids and sat back as the trainer massaged her tight thighs. Hingis? She laid down next to the court with her feet in her changeover chair. Was she thinking about Steffi Graf?
"When I played Steffi, always the older one, she was always experienced, physically in great shape. It always came down to that at the end. I was thinking about, 'She must get cramps, too. She can't be so fresh, too.' At the end, it paid off, believing that you are still hanging (around) in the match."
Hingis held serve for the match, at one point running down a drop shot and ripping a runner just over the top of the net and very nearly around it.
"Unfortunately, I was unable to close it out," Venus said. "I didn't take my opportunities. I just should have taken (them) earlier so I wouldn't have been out there at that point.
"That's just too bad."
Hingis has met Serena William five times. She beat her in their first two meetings, both last year. This year, as Serena's game has evolved, her WTA Tour ranking has risen to No. 6. She has played Hingis three times in 1999, winning twice.
Will this look like Hingis vs. Venus in the 1997 final?
No, according to Venus. "Hopefully, Serena definitely will do better than what I did two years ago. But it's under totally different circumstances because Serena has a lot more to work with, I would say, than what I did at the time."
Hingis might be inclined to disagree. So now she faces ...
"Another one," Hingis said. "I was so far never able at the same tournament to beat both of them. But, you know, hopefully there is always a first time."
Hingis halts all-sister final, faces Serena for U.S. Open title