Hingis let go four matchpoints

NIRMAL SHEKAR

DAY EIGHT, Monday, January 21: "The boys did it at last...about time, I guess," says an Australian sportswriter. He is elated that Steve Waugh's team has opened its account in the Triangular series.

Marat Safin grimaces after losing a point to Thomas Johansson in the final. Safin ultimately lost in four sets.-AFP

The last week has been a terrible one for Australian sport. For the first time in the Open Era not a single male player made it to the third round of the Australian Open. And in cricket, the world champions lost three games in a row.

"Now the great Aussie hope at the Open is Clijsters," says my friend. Kim Clijsters is a Belgian, to be sure. But she is Lleyton Hewitt's girlfriend and that, in a fortnight like this when Aussies have fallen like flies, makes her half-Australian, in the least.

Talking of nationalities, Peter Hanlon, another Australian sportswriter, is at your diarist's desk, checking on Stephen Amritraj.

"Is this Indian boy Vijay's son?" asks Hanlon. You feel like telling him, 'Hey, this boy maybe of Indian origin but he is playing for the United States.' Instead, you say, "Well, he is Anand Amritraj's son. That's Vijay's older brother."

Hanlon then proceeds to query you about Vijay's foray into Hollywood films. Nice story, the only problem is Stephen manages to win just three games against his Slovakian opponent Luca Gregorc in the first round boys' singles match.

Well, it's that kind of a day. Nothing much happens early on. And nothing much will happen outside the main arena all day - the rain which starts around noon does not stop until early the next morning.

But in the Rod Laver Arena, there is plenty of action. Jennifer Capriati quells Rita Grande's late second set challenge for a straight sets victory in the fourth round and then calls Marcelo Rios "stupid" for making the comments that he did about women's tennis.

Rios, playing some of the best tennis of his career here, has talked about how the top women players face no opposition at all until the quarterfinals or semifinals and how women's tennis lacks depth.

"I think comments like that are not even worth answering. It's a ridiculous comment. We know that is not the truth," says Capriati. "Stupidity really deserves no answer back."

When told what Capriati's reaction was, Rios, who storms through to the quarterfinals today, says "I am not going to start arguing. In the locker room everybody agrees with me. (Amanda) Coetzer is 12th in the world and she loses 6-1, 6-0 (to Hingis) in 20 minutes. It's ridiculous, what is going on in women's tennis. I think until quarters, girls win too easy."

Given what has happened in the men's championship here - with a long line of champions and contenders ousted - the women's game does not compare favourably, to be sure. The depth in men's tennis is far, far greater than in the women's game. And Rios is right. Just that, it may be a politically correct thing to say.

Then again, is it right to say that the greatest of 'em all may never win a major title again? Does Pete Sampras have another Grand Slam in him?

The great man insists he does. But as you watch him against Marat Safin of Russia tonight, it is tough to agree with him. In the first two sets, the Russian outplays man who has won a record 13 Grand Slam titles.

Backhands and forehands fly past Sampras like laser guided missiles and he fails to make any sort of impression on Safin's serves either. A rout of the sort witnessed in the 2000 U.S.Open final seems on the cards.

But, as it turns out, the great man does not go down without a fight. He turns wonderfully aggressive and mixes things up even as Safin takes his leg off the pedal briefly. Breaking back in the eighth game of the third set, Sampras goes on to win the third set in the tiebreak.

And when he fights his way to setpoints in the fourth set tiebreak, it does appear that Sampras might take the match into the decider. But on his second matchpoint, Safin comes up with a breathtaking forehand winner up the line and it is the end of the story for the eighth seed.

"It is disappointing, for the longer the match went I felt the momentum was going my way," says Sampras.

Match of the day: Marat Safin (Rus) bt Pete Sampras (USA) 6-2, 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(8).

Quote of the day: "I didn't want to play fifth set. You never want to play fifth set against Pete because you never know what will happen. He can make a great return and your game is gone."

- Marat Safin.

Day Nine, Tuesday, January 22: There is not a whole lot of electricity at the Rod Laver Arena today. Thomas Johansson versus Jonas Bjorkman would not exactly be a sell-out at Stockholm or even at the Scandinavium in Gothenburg.

About the only ones that a really excited are a few dozen Swedish fans. And even they are rather subdued, given that both players are Swedes and are good friends off the court.

Johansson wins in four sets and says it is tough to play a good friend. "We are really good friends off the court. My fiance and Jonas' wife are really good friends too, so we spend some time off the court and we had our holiday together last year," he says after making his first career Grand Slam semifinal.

Then he bemoans the fact that interest for tennis has fallen steeply in Sweden over the last few years, since the retirement of Mats Wilander and then Stefan Edberg.

"The interest is almost zero and I hope this can bring it back a little," says Johansson. "We have so many other sports that have taken over."

When asked what the reason was, Johansson is refreshingly frank. "Actually, look at me. I am not that interesting. That's one key. If you colour your hair red and act a little bit different, then you are interesting."

He says that ice hockey, downhill skiing and soccer are way ahead of tennis in terms of popularity.

"They had a voting in Sweden recently," says Johansson. "The No.1 place went to the 1994 soccer team that took the bronze medal in the World Cup. No. 2 was a handball team or something. And there was not a single tennis team in the top 10 and we have won the Davis Cup."

Martina Hingis wipes her face during the trophy presentation. "I wish I had lost 6-2, 6-2 and did not have all those matchpoints," said the runner-up after losing to Jennifer Capriati.-REUTERS

Maybe if Johansson goes all the way here, or perhaps surprises everyone by winning the title, things will change in Sweden.

The best match of the day - or night, to be precise - is the one between Monica Seles and Venus Williams. Although there are quite a few unforced errors, especially from Venus, the three-set contest witnesses some glorious tennis in patches.

Venus is troubled by a right hamstring strain and Seles, nursing a sore throat and slight temperature, is not 100 per cent fit herself. But the former world champion plays the best she has here since winning the last of her Grand Slam titles at Melbourne in January 1996 to beat Venus in three sets.

This is Seles' first victory in seven meetings with Venus and it earns her a shot at Martina Hingis.

"I am fighting a fever and I was a little bit worried about that. But right now I feel fine," says Seles. "The crowd support here has been truly amazing every year."

Match of the day: Monica Seles bt Venus Williams 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-3.

Quote of the day: "It's never fun losing. I have yet to find the best part of losing."

- Venus Williams.

Day Ten, Wednesday, January 23: As you look out the hotel room window, it is still raining. This is incredible. In two decades to visiting this city every summer for the championship, one has never seen anything quite like this - an almost non-stop spitting rain for over two days.

"This is Wimbledon weather," John Parsons, the Daily Telegraph (London), tennis correspondent has remarked yesterday. And so it looks like in a city that is as far removed geographically from London as is possible.

Thankfully, by the time you step out of the hotel to make your way to Melbourne Park, the weather has cleared. And the sun is shining in all its glory.

Few cities anywhere in the world experience temperature swings quite like Melbourne. You can leave for work at 10 a.m. in brilliant sunshine, with the temperature touching high 20s, live through a day when it hits a peak at 33 or 35 and then come back late at night shivering in wintry cold.

Much like this year's championship, to be sure, one that has blown hot and cold, to be sure, cold for the most part.

"Two good matches today. We are going to see some good competition," says a Dutch journalist as we walk into Melbourne Park.

Competition? What is that? In a little over two hours, Jennifer Capriati and Kim Clijsters have set up a semifinal meeting. Clijsters takes about 20 minutes to take control of the match against Justine Henin, her Belgian team-mate, and then cruises, losing a mere five games in all.

Capriati has it even easier. Her opponent, the 1999 finalist Amelie Mauresmo, makes 34 unforced errors, a majority of them on her backhand, and manages just four games, two in each set.

What is more, in the third quarterfinal of the day, Wayne Ferreira, the South African veteran who had won two five setters to make the last eight, pulls a stomach muscle and quits after seven games in the first set (down 2-5) against Marat Safin of Russia.

In times of recession in this country, the fans must have surely felt cheated with the fare after having paid upwards of $50 for the day session.

"It's good for me. This break helps. I got lucky," says Safin. "It does not bother me that I did not play a full match."

Of course, there is lot of drama on the outside courts where there was very little activity on Monday and Tuesday. The rains have seriously disrupted the boys and girls championships, not to speak of the doubles in the open events.

Today, India's Sania Mirza scores an impressive victory in the first round of the girls' singles, beating Ivana Jovanovic of Australia 6-2, 6-4.

-AFP The doubles champions, Mark Knowles (right) and Daniel Nestor.

The doubles champions, Mark Knowles (right) and Daniel Nestor.

Mirza, who plays quite a few overseas events, hits with tremendous confidence and skills from the back of the court to stamp out the Australian girl's challenge late in the second set when Jovanovic leads 4-3 with a break.

"The wind was affecting my serve. But I felt pretty good out there," says Mirza, the only Indian youngster to win a round in singles this week.

Later in the evening, Tommy Haas outlasts that charming, gifted Chilean Marcelo Rios in four tough sets to make the semifinals.

Rios, down two sets, plays some amazing winners, going for angles that are impossible to find with a racquet and a ball on a tennis court. As he takes the third set tiebreak, the crowd comes alive.

What is more, the Chilean finds a break in the first game of the fourth set. But Haas, seeded seven, breaks back immediately, lets go of two matchpoints in the tiebreak and closes out the match on his third.

"It was a very tight match. He played a good tiebreak in the third set and I played a good one in the fourth, so it was extremely tight," says Haas.

Match of the day: Tommy Haas (Ger) bt Marcelo Rios (Chi) 7-6, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6.

Quote of the day: "This should be a thriller."

- spectator in the Rod Laver Arena on the Capriati-Mauresmo match. Capriati won 6-2, 6-2.

Day Eleven, Thursday, January 24: "He was only joking. They have made a huge issue out of it. It is unfair," says an Australian sportswriter as he sit down at the media restaurant for a cup of tea this morning.

He is referring to the controversy over remarks made by the Australian captain Steve Waugh about Ellworthy, the South African player. Waugh had said something about a brain scan done on Ellworthy who was hit by a rising delivery in a one-day international.

The Australian captain had joked about what they found - or, to be precise, did not find - in the scan and this was obviously done in private but caught on tape and widely reported.

The point is, when you occupy a position as esteemed as Steve Waugh's you have to be careful even when you are joking.

Anyway, there is plenty of time this afternoon to discuss a few things as we wait for the women's semifinals to begin. And it does not until well over an hour after the scheduled start, thanks to a marathon men's semifinal match between two French teams - Fabrice Santoro/Michael Llodra versus Arnaud Clement/Julien Boutter - that is decided 12-10 in the third set.

There is a lot of cheering in the media room when Santoro and Llodra finally manage to squeak through.

One would have thought the French knew a bit about chivalry. Obviously not, at least on a tennis court. How could these men keep the women waiting for so long?

But then, neither Monica Seles nor Martina Hingis shows any sign of nervousness after the long wait. It is Seles who looks so much the better of the two in the early exchanges as he blasts away on both flanks to win a topsy turvy first set.

Then again, there is no more resourceful player on the women's tour than Hingis. She knows all about how to disarm opponents with bigger weapons than hers and she does this like a veteran Field Marshall in a battle.

-AFP Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis are elated after winning the doubles trophy.

Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis are elated after winning the doubles trophy.

Seles, who has started working with Mike Sell, a 28-year-old former touring pro whose highest ranking was 136, seems to tire as the match wears on but find second wind to put up some resistance late in the decider before Hingis wins in three exciting sets.

"Martina was more consistent throughout the match. I made too many unforced errors," says Seles after losing for only the third time in her career in Australia. Four of her nine Grand Slam titles were won at the Rod Laver Arena.

The second semifinal between Jennifer Capriati and Kim Clijsters also goes to three sets but lacks the variety that is one view in the first match. Capriati uses her greater power and experience to get past the young Belgian who seems a touch nervous in the decider.

Later at night, in a match that features as many breathtaking winners as there are nervous errors, Thomas Johansson of Sweden beats Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic in five sets to advance to his first ever Grand Slam final.

Match of the day: 3-Martina Hingis (Sui) bt 8-Monica Seles (USA) 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

Quote of the day: "I think you should go and see a doctor."

- Johansson when asked what he would have said if somebody had said to him two weeks ago that he'd make the final here.

Day Twelve, Friday, January 25: It's nice to catch up with Brian Cooney again. Cooney, from the International Management Group (IMG), Australia, used to run the Chennai ATP event for a few years and has been a regular visitor to India over the years.

"How did the Chennai event go this year? I heard it picked up during the week and was a big success," says Cooney.

He talks about how difficult it is, in these days of severe cost cutting in the corporate sector, to find sponsors and pay guarantee money to top players.

"It's a tough situation when you throw in a lot of money banking on one top guy to deliver. What if he takes the money and then loses in the first round?" says Cooney.

He says these are not days when it is easy to sell anything to prospective sponsors. "In the old days you under-promised and over-delivered. Now you have to over-promise and over-deliver," says Cooney.

We then go down memory lane and talk about the great days in Chennai when Boris Becker and Pat Rafter and Pat Cash played there.

"I think the shift from April to January is great. The weather is so much better in January,"says Cooney. "I remember when Becker played Gerard Solves (and lost), he simply couldn't breathe after the match because of the heat and the humidity. And Cash, well, he had to put his shoes out to dry after the match. They were soaking wet."

Then again, right here, we have scorcher on our hands. Although it is not as humid as in Chennai in the summer, the temperature soars to 35 degrees as Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova beat Daniela Hantuchova and Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario in the women's doubles final in three sets.

Hantuchova, the 19-year-old Czech girl, is a phenomenal talent and she plays a key role in stopping the glamour pair from winning in straight sets, although Hingis is relieved that the decider turns out to be an easy affair. For, she has a more important final to play tomorrow against Jennifer Capriati and the last thing she'd want is to stay on court in this heat for more than two hours.

The heat gets to Marat Safin too. The 6ft 4in Russian with the beat-me-if-you-can swagger is raving and ranting on the court as Tommy Haas wins the first set tiebreak and then finds an early break on Safin's serve in the second set.

The Russian bangs his racquet on the court, breaks it, and then promptly calls for the trainer. During the break he signals to his coach that his legs are simply not obeying his orders. He seems to say: "I am finished."

And it does look as if the ninth seeded former U.S.Open champion has been run to the ground. But the three-minute injury time out breaks Haas' rhythm and he double faults twice to lose serve in the sixth game.

But, then, despite winning the second set tiebreak, Safin once again looks drained of energy as Haas digs deep to take the third set.

-REUTERS Kevin Ullyett and Daniela Hantuchova pose with the mixed doubles trophy.

Kevin Ullyett and Daniela Hantuchova pose with the mixed doubles trophy.

What can save Safin now, you wonder. And the answer comes from the skies, which open up briefly. A short spell of thundershowers send the players packing. And the 50-minute break is a God-send for Safin.

He has his legs massaged, takes a shower and comes back refreshed to play indoors and blast poor Haas off the court, winning the last two sets in quick time.

"I must thank God for the rain. If not for the rain, I would have lost, for sure. I couldn't move my legs," says Safin.

Match of the day: 9-Marat Safin (Rus) bt 7-Tommy Haas (Ger) 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-0, 6-2.

Quote of the day: "I cannot tell you, it is a secret."

- Safin, when asked what was the mistake he had made the previous night. He had said his problems today were because of a mistake he made on Thursday night.

Day Thirteen, Saturday, January 26: "Hello, nice to see you here." As you walk down the hill at the Royal Botanical Gardens, the voice sounds familiar. Then you see the face. It is Steve Casey, the genial Aussie who, for many years, was Director of Communications, Association of Tennis Professionals, based in Sydney.

Steve played a big role in the promotion of the Chennai ATP event in its early days. But one has not seen him for two or three years.

"What are you upto these days Steve?" your diarist asks him.

"Well, I am no longer with ATP. I run my own PR company here in Melbourne. I keep in touch with ATP and do quite a few things," says Steve.

"So how has the tennis been at the Open?" he asks and we chat for a few minutes before saying goodbye.

A lot of the familiar faces - for the media - in the ATP have left over the last few years and in the last few months the organisation has done a bit of trimming for cutting costs. Even Fiona Puller, a popular media person with whom many Indian sportswriters are familiar - she was a regular visitor to Chennai for the ATP event there until last year - has had to leave.

New faces or old, some things don't change at all in Melbourne. In a summer that's hardly been a summer, the women's final is played today in very, very warm conditions. After India's Mahesh Bhupathi and Elena Likhovtseva are beaten in the third set shootout (the first team to win 10 points wins the set) by Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe and Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia in the mixed doubles semifinals, then Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis make their way to an oven of a court at the Rod Laver Arena.

And Hingis' tennis is as hot as the weather as she wins the first set and then opens up a 4-0 second set lead. A few agency reporters leave the press box to write their leads. "Sweet revenge for Hingis, Swiss Miss blasts champion off the court." Lines like these must be swimming in their heads as they make their way to the writing room.

As it turns out, it would be another hour and 25 minutes before they would actually write down the lead that would make the wires.

In an extraordinary turnaround, Hingis, who has not won a Grand Slam singles final since the 1999 Australian Open, makes some nervous unforced errors at the doorstep of success. And Capriati, never one to throw anything away, fights off four matchpoints in the second set.

By then, the 21-year-old Swiss player is totally drained of energy in the sapping heat. And once the players come back from a 15-minute break at the end of the second set, Hingis' is a token presence, no more.

It is the first time in 46 years that a woman has come back from matchpoint down to win the final and the first time in 75 years that anybody - man or woman - has managed to save four to win a final.

"I have had this problem closing out, at a set and 4-0 you shouldn't give it away," says Hingis. "After the second set I wished I could stop at that point, it was just too much for me. It was dehydration, it was too hot."

Capriati herself admits that, in terms of the conditions, it is the toughest match she has ever played.

"Definitely, as far as the conditions, yeah. It was really hard to breathe out there, the air was so thick, just so hot," says the woman who won her first Grand Slam title here last year. "I had a lot on my shoulders. Being a defending champion, No.1 and the conditions..."

Match of the day: 1-Jennifer Capriati (USA) bt 3-Martina Hingis (Sui) 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-2.

Quote of the day: "I wish I had lost 6-2, 6-2 and did not have all those matchpoints."

- Martina Hingis to her mother Melanie in the locker room.

Day Fourteen, Sunday, January 27: A spot of rain overnight has brought the temperature down considerably. As you look out the hotel room window, you see a thick overcast.

The phone rings pretty early in the morning. And it is Benny Chatterjee on the line.

Benny runs a popular Indian restaurant in the swanky South Yarra neighbourhood. And he rings this morning for some expert opinion on who has a better chance of winning the men's final this afternoon, Marat Safin or Thomas Johansson.

A keen punter, Benny has made some money this fortnight on Safin and just wants another word of confirmation that the big Russian is indeed the big favourite this afternoon.

"You know, I also made some money on the cricket. I backed New Zealand against Australia twice and won both times," says Benny.

Meanwhile, at Melbourne Park this morning, my good friend Bud Collins, the Boston Globe columnist and Tennis Hall of Famer, is busy handing out photo copies of a page from an old book to his colleagues.

"It's all in there,"says Collins. "No woman has ever saved four matchpoints to win a Grand Slam final. The last time anyone saved three was in 1889," he says.

The man is a walking encyclopaedia. And quite the most amazing thing is his humility and how he interacts with younger colleagues who would never perhaps accomplish half of what he has in a remarkable career.

Even as you get ready to leave for the press box for the men's final, Benny calls again. "You know what. They are giving just 30 cents for Safin," he says. That is one dollar would get you a return of 1.30, prohibitive odds really.

And this is a day when many a punter would have regretted backing Safin at such odds. For, in one of the most stunning upsets in recent times, Thomas Johansson comes back from a set down to beat Marat Safin in four sets.

Returning Safin's serves as well as any player might have in a long, long time, Johansson, serving confidently himself and winning crucial points with his backhand, outguns the big Russian on a day when Safin appears listless.

"You cannot compare this to anything else," says Johansson. "You only dream of these things, watching on television. This is unbelievable," says the 26-year-old Swede after his maiden Grand Slam triumph.

The last time a Swede won a Grand Slam singles title was in 1992 at the U. S.Open where Stefan Edberg beat Pete Sampras in the final for his second title in New York.

"I wish Marat a very happy birthday," says Johansson after receiving the trophy on an afternoon when he ruined the Russian's 22nd birthday party.

Match of the day: Thomas Johansson (Swe) bt Marat Safin (Rus) 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(4).

Quote of the day: "When you play against Pete (Sampras), you have nothing to lose. Today I was the favourite. That's the difference."

- Safin, when asked what was the difference between the Sampras match and today.