By Chris Oddo/ Friday, October 18, 2013
Steffi Graf's final triumph at the WTA Championships turned out to be the spark that started a run of greatness
for Martina Hingis.
Photo Source: Getty
With Istanbul fast approaching, Tennis Now will be looking back at some classic moments from the WTA Championships archives. We'll start with Steffi Graf's last WTA Championships title, a five-set victory over then-16-year-old Martina Hingis at Madison Square Garden in 1996. Stay tuned for more in the coming week.
When we think of Graf and Hingis, we first tend to fixate on their dramatic 1999 French Open final. That tearjerker was the final meeting between Hingis and Graf, and it featured controversy and an epic meltdown by the Swiss Miss that will forever be remembered and in a weird way cherished, but their early meetings, pitting the dominant German against the coming-of-age Swiss Miss, also captured the imagination of fans.
By the time they met in the finals of what was then called the Chase Championships in New York, Graf and Hingis had already met three times in Grand Slams with the German winning them all in straight sets. But Hingis, 16 in the fall of 1996, and still without a Grand Slam singles title (she would win in Australia just a few months later), was clearly a rare gem that was just starting to shine. Graf, though still superior in many ways, was not unaware of Hingis' potential. ''She's definitely the one to look out for, no question,” Graf said after the final. “She can hit incredible angles and her down-the-lines are probably the best around tennis.''
Despite Hingis' burgeoning talent, Graf would go on to clinch her fifth WTA Championships title, repeating as champion for the first time, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, 4-6, 6-0. The match itself would be a test of wills and stamina as much as it was a test of pure talent. Both players were rich in talent, but it was Graf, though beset by a sore back and a sore left knee during the week in New York, who was stronger down the stretch.
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With Hingis wilting, suffering from cramps from the middle of the fourth set on, she was easy picking for Graf. In theory Hingis was battling, but the tightness in her left thigh kept her from causing any ripples in Graf's game in what was her first-ever fifth set on the WTA Tour.
''Somehow I just wanted to cry,'' Hingis would later say. ''You make a fifth set against Steffi and then you're not able to force her anymore. But she's a big player and she can handle it better than I do.''
Hingis would become big in her own right the very next year, winning in Australia and then going on to capture four of the next five Grand Slam titles. Graf, meanwhile, wouldn't win again at the Slam level until she crossed paths with Hingis at Roland Garros in 1999.
As far as Hingis had come in the interim between 1996 and her final meeting with Graf in 1999 (she had won five of the last nine Slams), she was never truly able to come far enough to get out of Steffi's shadow. Her near miss in the 1996 WTA Championships final spurred Hingis to great heights over the next three years, but her next near miss against Graf at Roland Garros marked the end of Hingis' domination at the Grand Slam level.