It was another pleasant day at the outdoor office, another Grand Slam title, along with its six-figure paycheck, tucked into the ever-expanding piggy bank of 17-year-old Martina Hingis. The apparently peerless player put up a successful and, if truth be told, virtually rote defense of her Australian Open title early Saturday with a 6-3, 6-3 pasting of Spain’s eighth-seeded Conchita Martinez.
Her accomplishment had historic echoes and its own tidy symmetry. The 86-minute finale not only delivered Hingis her fourth Grand Slam singles title, but it also made her the youngest player in the Open era to defend a Slam championship. The record was held by Monica Seles, who was 17-1/2 when she repeated as champion of the French Open in 1991.
Hingis was a junior champion at Wimbledon in 1994, the year Martinez won that title at the expense of Martina Navratilova, the player Hingis was named for and whose record nine Wimbledon titles appear to be in jeopardy. Hingis appears likely to rewrite yet another chapter of tennis history during her tenure at the top.
The youngest player to reach the $5 million mark in career earnings, Hingis captured three Slam championships in 1997 and reached the finals of all four majors. The Australian final was her first attempt to defend a Slam crown, and it was an assignment she had no intention of mishandling.
“Let me tell you one thing, to defend the title is much harder than to come in and win it the first time,” said Hingis, who clasped hands in victory with her mother, Melanie Molitor, and her doubles partner, Mirjana Lucic, “there’s so much pressure.”
Then, the relieved and delighted champion dumped a bottle of water over her slick, dark hair before making her acceptance speech. “I’m happy to have continued to do this this time, especially in singles and in doubles,” said Hingis, whose victory was assured when Martinez pumped out her 37th blooper, a backhand wide of the target, at match point.
“She played the right shots at the right time; today patience was everything,” said Martinez, who didn’t generate enough of it. “I felt I had a shot at it, but she didn’t let me attack. I didn’t play bad but I didn’t play great.”
In fact, Martinez played this match much the same way she had played Hingis in her previous two matches, both straight-set losses in 1997: she dropped the opening set and dropped her first service game in the second set with a lazy netted backhand.
Although Martinez broke Hingis in the first game of the match, she responded to that bit of prosperity by sabotaging it. The Spaniard surrendered her own service game without winning a single point and launched an overwrought forehand outside the sideline at triple break point. After Hingis held for 2-1, Martinez got into trouble again on her serve and put herself in a 3-1 hole with another misfired forehand.
Martinez failed to put up anything resembling a fight until she fended off two set points as she served at 2-5. She recovered that game, to close to 3-5, but that provided only a temporary respite from the loss of the set.
Martinez saved the first set point by whipping a hard-angled forehand across the net, and Hingis watched her second set point disappear when she banged a forehand wide of the legal limits.
But the Swiss teenager needed just one chance to serve out the opening set in the next game. A netted backhand from the Spaniard, her 22nd unforced error in the 40-minute old match, converted Hingis’ third set point for the 6-3 decision.
After breaking Martinez for a 1-0 lead in the second set, Hingis drifted into an uncharacteristic attention lapse and lost her break by failing to hold serve. Serving at 15-40, Hingis tried to trick Martinez with a lame dink of a drop shot, but the Spaniard, who spent most of this match just behind the baseline, came up with a burst of speed and laced a forehand into the open corner behind Hingis to break for 1-1.
Martinez held for 2-1, but the lead was only momentary. After Hingis survived a long and twisting rally in the fourth game on a point that could have given Martinez a double break point, the Spaniard again retreated and the Swiss won 12 of the next 14 points.
Once Hingis broke for 3-2, Martinez’s body language signaled imminent defeat. The champion never let her back into the match.
Crisply and carefully, Hingis kept the ball in play and Martinez, who seemed eager to leave this final behind her even before she was counted out on the scoreboard, obliged with just enough mistakes. The errors made her bid for a second Slam title a futile one.
Last year was the first time in a decade that Martinez, now 25, had failed to win a single tour singles title and the first time since 1992 that she failed to win the Italian Open, her favorite event. The slump pushed her out of the top ten, but her seven-round campaign here in Melbourne moved her back to eighth in the world. Considering that her best previous result here had been a loss to eventual champion Mary Pierce in the 1995 semifinals, Martinez sounded satisfied.
“Working hard was the key to coming back,” said Martinez, whose supporters back home in Monzon, Spain, turned out in full force to watch this final on a big screen that was erected near her parents’ house.
Meanwhile, the next chapter in “The Williams Sisters Wow Australia” continued on another front.
The brand-new mixed doubles partnership of Venus Williams and Justin Gimelstob continued to pay dividends. After reaching the semifinals with a 7-6 (7-2), 3-6, 6-2 upset of third-seeded Lisa Raymond and Pat Galbraith in the quarterfinals, the unseeded Americans reached the final of the event by defeating another unseeded duo, Elena Likhovsetva and Max Mirnyi, 6-2, 6-1.
Marcelo Rios, the ninth-seeded Chilean who was to face sixth-seeded Petr Korda in the men’s final, said his parents would not be on hand to watch him perform in his first Grand Slam final. “It’s too far,” he said. “They would arrive on Tuesday.”