Hingis win marks new era for women's game

 

IF THE crushing victory by Pete Sampras reaffirmed the established order in men's tennis, Martina Hingis's equally-emphatic win in Saturday's Australian Open women's final against Mary Pierce could be marked down as the flowering of a new era.

The queen is by no means dead, of course, but Hingis, the youngest-ever winner of a Grand Slam title this century, has moved smoothly into the number two spot behind Steffi Graf and may overtake the German multi-titled winner later this year this is by any means a certainty. Graf, with 21 Grand Slams to her name, remains a supreme champion, and her fourth-round defeat here by South Africa's) Amanda Coetzer may well have had more to do with her father's jail sentence for tax fraud than either injury, heat, or a deterioration in form.

Hingis beat Graff again totally distracted by her father's trial, during the Italian Open last year, but was then put in her place on three occasions - Wimbledon, the US Open, and the end-of-season Chase championships at Madison Square Garden, New York.

Yet each time Hingis edged just a little closer, and her title success here will have lifted her confidence another notch, if it needed lifting at all.

Many had supposed that Pierce would give Hingis a rough ride. Thee French woman, now coached by[ Sven Groeneveld, remains essentially a big hitter, with few other capabilities, but there were at least some signs during this tournament: that she may be learning to defend at last, as well as recognising that not every ball she hits has to have its cover grievously assaulted.

Initially, on her first service game, Hingis found the ball flying past her at a great rate of knots, but she quickly began to move Pierce from one side of the baseline to the other, exerting pressure that the French woman just could not cope with.

All that Hingis needs now is a stronger serve to complement her superb volleying skills, and this will surely come within the next couple of years. Already her baseline game has such variety of pace and angles that few can cope. If, like Martina Navratilova, after whom she was christened, Hingis can come to the net with confidence, then she its surely set to dominate the women's game for the foreseeable future.

The emergence of the two Belgian women, Dominique van Roost and Sabine Appelmans, who both reached the quarter-finals, was another encouraging indication that the women's game is in a happy state of flux, although the Australians have understandably been asking themselves why, if Belgium could do it, they could not.

The British are also asking themselves the same question of British women's tennis, which remains at a dreadfully low ebb.