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Hingis Holds Airy Discussion After Breezing in 61 Minutes

Tennis: Topics of the day are Graf's comeback, tour challengers and riding in Nepal--not horses, elephants.

March 08, 1998|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — What more could Martina Hingis really say about her 6-2, 6-1 victory over Sarah Pitkowski on Saturday at the State Farm Evert Cup, other than at 61 minutes, the second-round match was a tad long by Hingis standards?

So Hingis passed the time in the interview room talking about everything else--her new hairstyle, the return of Steffi Graf, the new wave of challengers on the WTA tour, elephant riding in Nepal.

An elephant, Hingis reports, is much more difficult to saddle up than a horse.

"They put, like, a bench on top of each elephant and we rode on the benches," said Hingis, who spent a week in Nepal last month with her mother on her way back home from Tokyo to Trubbach, Switzerland.

"On the elephant I rode, there was only me, because . . . [she paused to giggle] I'm kind of special. So I was on the bench by myself and there was nothing to hold on to. With a horse, you have a bridle, there's something you can hold.

"And you don't want to fall off an elephant. If you fall, it's a little bit higher than a horse."

Hingis called her stopover in Nepal "a little bit of a nightmare" but she survived. No headfirst dives off the elephant, no serious contusions, no broken bones.

In other words, Pitkowski had no chance against her Saturday afternoon.

Having received a first-round bye, Hingis was playing her first match in a month since she lost to Lindsay Davenport in the final of the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo on Feb. 8. She was one of the top four seeded players to advance in straight sets Saturday, along with:

* Graf, who defeated Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand, 6-4, 6-0, in her second tournament appearance since undergoing knee surgery nine months ago.

* Davenport, who began defense of her 1997 Evert Cup title with a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Amy Frazier.

* Venus Williams, who swept Silvia Farina of Italy, 6-3, 6-1.

Hingis, 17, ranked No. 1 in the world and seeded first here, said she is curious about Graf's comeback because she is not overly concerned with the new, touted crop of contenders on the women's circuit--the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, and 16-year-old Anna Kournikova of Russia.

When asked if she felt either of the Williams sisters or Kournikova had enough game to beat her "consistently," Hingis' response was as succinct as it was self-assured: "No."

Asked to elaborate, Hingis was more than happy to oblige.

"Kournikova took me to three sets [at the Australian Open] but she still didn't beat me," Hingis said. "Venus beat me in Sydney, but she still hasn't beaten me at a big tournament."

Hingis did allow, however, that "they're getting older and they're getting better."

Graf's return after career-threatening surgery is "good for women's tennis," in Hingis' estimation.

"You never know what's going to happen, but I think it's good she's trying to come back."

Hingis grinned and looked out at the roomful of reporters.

"That's why I want to go out there and watch her match," she told the writers. "So keep it short."

Graf dismissed Tanasugarn in 68 minutes, but said she is still "weeks" away from true tournament shape.

"Obviously, it's very different for me at the moment," Graf said. "I haven't played tennis for almost nine months. I'm still trying to get my rhythm back. I still lack practice time and playing [in tournaments].

"It's very different out there. I think I need a couple weeks, a couple tournaments to get that feeling back."

The mind, according to Graf, occasionally plays tricks on the court, reminding the legs of past glories while the legs remain hopelessly foggy on the subject.

"That's what makes it very difficult," Graf said. "It almost feels like you know you have played so well [before], so you should play so well now. You anticipate it--but you know you can't do it right now."

Even at less than peak fitness, Graf has elevated the level of intensity in this tournament by her presence alone, Davenport said.

"It's pretty exciting," Davenport said. "When I saw Steffi practicing the first night, I said to myself, 'OK, she's here!'

"It's an extremely tough tournament this year. I'll have to play extremely well to win it again."

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