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Martinez Ends Hingis' Magical Run

Tennis: Fans in Rome show affection for 15-year-old during 6-2, 6-3 loss in Italian Open final.

May 13, 1996|BUD COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ROME — A forlorn, red rose-adorned banner atop waterlogged El Foro Italico proclaimed:

GABRIELA ROSE DI ROMA.

Gabriela Sabatini, a four-time winner of past Italian Opens, was absent but not forgotten. But locals have found another heart-throb, and from the unlikely quarter of Switzerland.

She is 15-year-old Martina Hingis, who came, saw and was finally conquered, losing to No. 3-seeded Conchita Martinez of Spain, 6-2, 6-3, Sunday in the Italian Open final.

It was Martinez's fourth consecutive Italian Open title, but the rain-assailed crowd of 8,000, almost filling the new double-decked stadium of Norwegian pine, was clearly pulling for Hingis, calling her "La Bambina."

After losing the first three games in six minutes, Hingis surveyed the situation coolly, turned her shrewd tennis mind pointedly to the task and kept fans hoping until Martinez, 24, held serve to 4-3 in the second set.

"It wasn't really that I didn't think I could win any more," Hingis said. "I just got tired and couldn't concentrate any more. But I had a good time. I didn't expect to get to the final."

Martinez's four Italian Open titles in a row is a record, surpassing the runs of Margaret Court (1960-62) and Chris Evert (1980-82). But this was the springy Spaniard's first title of the year. She won six in 1995, and was a semifinalist in all four majors.

Martinez made it clear there would be none of the kind of child's play that buried No. 1-seeded Steffi Graf in the copper-hued ground three days earlier.

Martinez had defeated Hingis, 6-1, 6-0, in their only other meeting at the 1995 Hamburg Open final in Germany, but she wasn't complacent going into Sunday's match.

"I was nervous because Martina has so much talent," Martinez said. "I'm glad it's over."

Martinez was relentless in the high-low treatment she deals out so dourly and destructively on the dirt, rolling top-spinning forehands and court-hugging slick backhands.

Hingis conceded, "I don't like to play against that, always reaching."

Who does?

"But it wasn't her forehand or backhand. It was my head. After beating Graf and [strong-armed 6-footer Irina] Spirlea, my concentration was done. I was tired."

Still, she went right back to work, playing back-to-back doubles matches with Gigi Fernandez. Because of a rain-jammed schedule, they played a semifinal match, beating Martinez and Patricia Tarabina, 6-1, 6-1, before a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 loss in the final to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Spirlea.

Three upper-level matches within six hours is a bit of achieving for anybody.

It wasn't Hingis' turn on this day, but it's coming. Next year the hearts-and-flowers strewn banners could be for her.

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