Tennis 1997: Hingis dominates,

Monday, December 22, 7:34 PM


By Dale Brauner Staff Writer

Just when tennis appeared to be lost in a sea of interchangeable Spaniards, suffering from a case of "Tiger" envy, and put to sleep by the numbing greatness of Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis came around with her Spice Girls to turn the 1997 tennis season into one to remember.

Spanish men ruled the clay courts, Sampras won his 10th Grand Slam title to close in on the all-time record, and tennis found itself lagging behind golf in popularity in the United States, but the teenaged Hingis was the main story all year.

Hingis had been tabbed as a future number one since she was 12 years old, but nobody could have predicted that she would make it to the top so soon and in such a fashion. She blazed through the early portion of the season, going 41-0 while winning the Australian Open singles and doubles crowns.

Although a new ranking system that rewarded quantity as well as quality helped Hingis to become the youngest top-ranked player ever in March, by the end of the year there would be no doubt as to the Swiss youngster's supremacy.

Hingis won three of the four Grand Slam crowns, with a loss in the French Open final keeping her from a clean sweep, and nine other tournaments. She lost just five matches all year -- none before the quarterfinals. The only thing that was missing was a proper rivalry with Steffi Graf, who ended her injury-plagued season prematurely after undergoing knee surgery in June.

The Swiss Miss was more than just the new number one, she was a breath of fresh air. While previous number ones -- Graf, Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova -- were aloof or surrounded by entourages, Hingis liked to hang out with the girls. Others could be diplomatic to a fault, but Hingis said what she felt, no matter how thoughtless or crass it sounded. If she thought that she was better than an opponent, she said it. A real trash talker, when asked whether tennis needed a Tiger Woods, Hingis pointed out that she was younger, better, and had won more major titles than the golfer.

Graf's season would come to an end after just 19 matches as a result of surgery on her troublesome left knee. She had been felled three times by South African Amanda Coetzer, who had a career year, and was unable to defend her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. It was the first season since 1986 that Graf did not win a Grand Slam title. She is expected to make her return at the 1998 Australian Open.

The German's rivals throughout the '90s did not fare much better. Seles failed to advance to a Grand Slam final, former number one Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, Spain's top two players, could not come up with a title between them, and Jana Novotna lost to Hingis in the Wimbledon final before salvaging the year with a victory in the season-ending Chase Championships.

Due to injury, Seles did not make her first appearance on the tour until March, when she lost to Hingis in the final of the Lipton Championships. She remained without a tournament win until the first week of August when she came from match-point down to beat Lindsay Davenport in the Acura Classic final at Manhattan Beach, California.

Although Seles wound up with three titles, her mind was clearly not on the court but with her father and mentor, Karolj, who is suffering from stomach cancer.

Hingis was not the only player to exhibit girl power. The teen quartet of 17-year-old Venus Williams of the United States, 16-year-old Russian Anna Kournikova, and a pair of Croatian teenages, 15-year-old Mirjana Lucic and 19-year-old Iva Majoli, also flexed their muscles.

Kournikova built on her Rookie-of-the-Year campaign of 1996 by scoring a number of upsets early in the season and blossomed in her first-ever Wimbledon, reaching the semifinals. She also sent the British tabloids into a frenzy with her May-December relationship with 27-year-old hockey star Sergei Fedorov.

When the sassy Russian faltered at the U.S. Open, it was Williams who stepped up. After disappointing debuts at both the French Open and Wimbledon, critics were attacking the Williams family for keeping Venus out of junior competition. She lacked experience, didn't know how to close out matches and couldn't deal with the pressure of big-time tennis, they said. Williams made them eat their words when she plowed through the field at Flushing Meadows to reach the final against Hingis.

Williams also plowed into Irina Spirlea in an incident that will forever be remembered in tennis as "The Bump". Spirlea, who had already expressed her displeasure at the amount of publicity the tour's teen stars were getting when she downed Kournikova in the second round, was miffed during her semifinal when Williams did not let her walk across first on the changeovers. So, the surly Romanian walked right into Williams and later said, "She thinks she's the (expletive) Venus Williams". Spirlea was fined $5,000 by the WTA Tour and called an "ugly, white turkey" by Venus' father Richard, who also charged the WTA with racism.

Majoli managed to do what Kournikova and Williams could not, stop Hingis in a Grand Slam. She snapped the number one player's season-opening match winning streak in the French Open final and became the first Croatian to win a Grand Slam crown.

However, it might be Lucic who turns out to be the rival Hingis needs. The powerful teen won the first professional tournament she entered, the Croatian Bol Ladies Open in May, and three weeks later battled Graf hard in the final of the Strasbourg International. Her excellence forced the WTA to loosen its restrictions on underaged players.