A New Martina Shines at Open

Young phenom's impressive game takes her into semifinal test with Steffi Graf

No. 1 seed Steffi Graf - the owner of 20 Grand Slam titles - is not alone at the top anymore. Monica Seles (No. 2), in her second US Open appearance after a two-year absence, is playing superior tennis and appears headed for a final showdown with Graf on Sunday. That could be the women's match of the year.

But, apart from the return of the Graf-Seles rivalry, the big difference at this year's Open is that the future of women's tennis showed up at this final of the four Grand Slam events.

Fifteen-year-old Martina Hingis (No. 16) meets Graf today in the semifinals. She beat Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (No. 3) in the round of 16 and Jana Novotna (No. 7) in the quarterfinals to get to the semis. Another 15-year-old - Russian Anna Kournikova also did well - making it to the round of 16, where she was beaten by Graf.

"That's the evolution of the game," says a buoyant Seles. "It was Gaby [Sabatini], Steffi, then it was Jennifer [Capriati], Monica, then [Hingis, Kournikova]. I think it's great. It's going to raise the level of women's tennis."

Hingis, who was born in Czechoslovakia but has lived in Switzerland since she was seven, expresses incredible confidence and a degree of nonchalance on the court. She already displays the skills and calm of a champion, but also shows her feelings - grinning unabashedly after making a great shot and occasionally showing her frustration. (In the match with Sanchez Vicario, she hurled her racket across the court after the umpire made what she felt was a second bad call).

Hingis is coached by her mother, Melanie Hingis Zogg, who played junior tennis herself and named her daughter after the great Czech player Martina Navratilova. But Hingis plays more like a Chris Evert. She stays back at the baseline, and has gained the respect of her peers for her smart selection of the wide array of shots she has in her repertoire.

"She's a talented player," said Sanchez Vicario after losing to Hingis on Monday. "She has good hands. She can come to the net, stay back. She has good ground strokes. She hits the ball very solid."

If there is a weakness in her game, it's her serve. But her mother - who is her coach - has purposely decided to allow Hingis to mature before she works too much on strength training.

Zogg practices with Hingis for only 1 1/2 hours each day. Then she varies other sports activities for her daughter - trying to keep tennis fun for her, she says. Hingis is becoming an accomplished equestrian as well. She's now jumping her horse (named Montana). She skis, mountainbikes, and is taking boxing and swimming lessons.

Hingis's accomplishments in tennis, meanwhile, are mounting. She beat Graf at the Italian Open last winter, one of only three losses Graf allowed this year. Hingis turned pro in March 1994, and was ranked No. 399. She's played well enough since to rise to No.16 in the world.

Nick Bollettieri, the famed coach who has helped many stars hit their way to the top - such as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Seles - says women's tennis needs characters like Hingis and Kournikova. Bollettieri predicts his pupil Kournikova will come into her own on the tour within two years. She has charisma, is extremely talented, works hard, and is not afraid to tell you how good she is, he says with a smile.

Seles, meanwhile, meets Conchita Martinez (No. 4) today in the semis. Seles has had an easy run so far, losing only 11 games in five matches despite a shoulder injury.

She was the only serious challenge to Graf before being stabbed by a Graf fan in a 1993 match in Hamburg, Germany. Seles had won seven Grand Slam titles between 1991 and 1993 and earned the No. 1 ranking in the world - breaking Graf's momentum.

She's definitely the favorite here. The fans cheer wildly for her and jam the sidelines for autographs. And Seles cheerfully responds. But she's quieter than at last year's Open, the first Grand Slam tournament after her return.

Thrilled just to be back, she then attended other matches, a New York Mets baseball game, a New York Giants football game, and was endlessly available to fans. Now she's focused on her tennis and winning.

"Monica has taken some bad hits this year," says Mary Carillo, former pro tennis player. "She lost early at the French Open and the Olympics to Novotna. After the Olympics, she was devastated. She's tired of playing subpar tennis. She was furious at herself that it happened again, and I think she's not going to let that happen again."

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