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Hingis Gets Another Shot

Tennis: Having gone three years without a Grand Slam title, she reaches final by ousting Seles, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

January 24, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MELBOURNE, Australia — Martina Hingis was starting to waver toward the finish line, her mind flying ahead of her body, imagining a sixth straight Australian Open final appearance. Working in her favor, and against those hoping for another happily-ever-after-comeback story, was a staggering Monica Seles.

Seles knew what to do. But her 28-year-old body couldn't get her within reach of the finish line, lunging for it instead of speeding toward it.

Consequently, Hingis overcame the mental yips when Seles succumbed to a physical dip. The third-seeded Hingis, who has not won a Grand Slam event in three years, will get another crack at breaking the drought as she defeated No. 8 Seles, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, in one hour 40 minutes today in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

In the final, Hingis will play defending champion and top-seeded Jennifer Capriati or No. 4 Kim Clijsters of Belgium. In their semifinal, Capriati won the first set 7-5 and Clijsters the second 6-3 as this edition went to press. It was a rematch of their French Open final last year, which Capriati won, 12-10, in the third set.

Hingis and Capriati met in last year's Australian Open final, and Capriati won convincingly, 6-4, 6-3, to take her first Grand Slam singles title. This will be Hingis' sixth straight appearance in the final here, winning the first three and losing the next two to Lindsay Davenport and Capriati.

Strangely enough, there seems to be less baggage accompanying Hingis since she lost the No. 1 ranking. After ankle surgery late last year, she stayed at home in Switzerland and worked hard physically, and it showed against Seles.

Unlike their last two matches on a hard-court surface in Southern California--both won by Seles--Hingis survived the early barrage of groundstrokes. Once it became clear that Seles was unwilling to approach the net with any frequency, Hingis was able to loop the balls back and play her trademark retrieving game.

So often, Seles would set up the point and miss the opportunity to seize it by making an unforced error. Case in point was in the fifth game of the second set. Hingis got down 0-40 and Seles had three break points, missing the third with a groundstroke just wide after an excellent series of forcing shots.

"I think Martina was more consistent through the match," said Seles, who has not been in a Slam final since the 1998 French Open. "I made too many unforced errors at key times. I thought I had a lot of misses today, against a player like Martina you can't afford it. Martina's a fast player and she does put pressure on you to make a good shot."

Hingis was relieved to see the final forehand from Seles float wide, saying, "Thank God, she had me."

The 21-year-old had started to fray in the final stretch, bouncing her racket and missing an overhead in the last game, leading 30-0. Hingis, out of the corner of her eye, saw Seles move slightly.

"I had the sense she was going there," Hingis said. "It forced me to go for too much. Nerves played a big-time role in it."

She was asked about the last time she missed an overhead in that manner--blasting it out at a key point.

"Maybe when I was two years old," Hingis said, laughing.

A year ago, Hingis seemed to be just as confident, beating Serena and Venus Williams to reach the final. Now, apparently, it was a brave front, she indicated.

"In the beginning of this year, I won Sydney and making the final (here), I did a lot better than I expected. I feel better than in the last few years," Hingis said. "I feel back where I used to be."

It is never easy for any player to defeat Seles at the Australian Open. Before this loss, she was 42-2 in Melbourne, winning the title four times. Although Hingis was overpowered in their last two meetings, she has done well against Seles in Grand Slams, winning five of their six matches.

Hingis had only 12 unforced errors to 40 for Seles, committing only three in the second set.

"Well, I had to lift something," Hingis said. "Monica was playing very well, not much I could do in the beginning. I felt like she was on top of me. I was just trying to make her move."

The game plan worked and now Hingis will try to win her first Slam since she beat Amelie Mauresmo of France in the Australian Open final in 1999.

"I believe it now again and it's a nice feeling," she said.

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