Hingis, Graf volley in test of wits

No. 1 seed, veteran declare themselves ready for final

French Open

June 05, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PARIS -- Perhaps, no one ever told No. 1 Martina Hingis that she should be careful for what she asks.

The 18-year-old phenom said boldly Thursday after moving into the French Open finals that, well, "Really, I pretty much actually would prefer to play Steffi."

The Steffi in question is Steffi Graf, a five-time champion here who has revitalized her career and reached a Grand Slam final for the first time in nearly three years.

"Steffi, with her absence of being in the finals for the last two years, I would hope she'll be a little bit nervous," Hingis said.

Graf, 29, raised her eyebrows.

"I somehow have the feeling, that I will be the relaxed one," she said. "I don't know until I get there, but I obviously feel that I don't have to prove anything. I mean, I'm extremely happy to be in this final, to be where I am right now. I don't feel that I have to win for sure, and I think that's going to work for me."

Hingis has won Grand Slam titles at the Australia Open (three), at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Open. But, despite being to the French semifinals twice before and in the 1997 final, she has yet to win the French.

Graf, on the other hand, will be in her 30th Grand Slam final, compared to Hingis' seventh, and is seeking her 22nd title.

She also is on the comeback trail from a series of injuries that have included knee and wrist surgery and hamstring, shoulder and back problems. This is her first Grand Slam final since the 1996 U.S. Open.

But Graf is a great competitor. She has not only won those five French titles, but she is one of only three women to have won a Grand Slam in a calendar year. Basically, you name it, and Graf has won it.

Hingis, who has been No. 1 for a total of 97 weeks, is ultimately shooting for Graf in a number of ways, including her all-time No. 1 ranking of 377 weeks.

And Hingis knows all the numbers, unlike a lot of young athletes who don't know about their chosen sport. She does.

"Oh, yes," she said. "I know many things. Besides rankings, I know that Steffi, Monica [Seles] and Arantxa [Sanchez-Vicario], won 11 out of 12 Roland Garros [from 1987 through 1998]. I feel kind of in a good party, you know. I feel honored being in this group, being one of the best.

"And Steffi has won five times Roland Garros. I think it is about time for me to win, at least once."

In her only final here, Hingis lost to the unheralded Iva Majoli, who had never been better than a quarterfinalist at any Grand Slam before -- or since, for that matter.

But two years ago, Hingis was just 16, and she had her mind on a lot of different things. Boys, horses and the joys of Paris. This time, she is more mature.

When asked what her routine would be the day before this match, it sounded very much like Graf's. A workout, a massage, a quiet dinner, and early to bed.

"I think I've learned a lot since the last time," she said. "I'm playing much smarter now. The first week I didn't feel that great, but I do now. That's different. The last two, three years, I felt worse at the end, so now I'm feeling better.

"It's also different with me back in the finals. The last three, four years, it has been always the same players. I think it's quite exciting, me the youngster in the finals. It feels good."

Neither of the women Graf and Hingis beat in the semifinals, Seles and Sanchez-Vicario, was willing to pick a clear winner for today.

"They're both playing really well," Seles said. "It should be a great match."

Added Sanchez-Vicario, "Steffi is playing really well. I think it depends how Martina starts the match. If she doesn't make so many mistakes, she has chances to win."

Which comes back to nerves: who has them and who doesn't. Hingis believes Graf will have them.

And Graf?

"I won't," she said.

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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