Hingis Wins 3rd Slam Title, Rafter Rises to No. 3

For tennis fans, this year's US Open championships, tagged the Wide Open for a flood of unexpected results, left them counting the days to next January's Australian Open in sun-baked Sydney.

The US event caused many to wonder about the shape of professional tennis. To a large degree, the just-completed tournament was more soup than congealed salad, with the form normally provided by the seeding of top players dissolving round by round.

For that reason, tennis watchers will be curious to find out whether the results four months hence will be marked by as much unpredictability as they were in New York, where on Sunday 13th-seeded Patrick Rafter walked off the men's winner against unseeded Greg Rusedski, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, and top-seeded teen wonder Martina Hingis, an island of dependability, waxed unseeded Venus Williams in the women's final, 6-0, 6-4.

The Australian Open is the first of four annual Grand Slam tournaments, but probably the last in terms of public recognition and prestige. Yet what happened in New York over the last two weeks was the perfect "set up" for the first "major" of 1998.

In Hingis's case, the question will be: Can her near-total domination of the women's game continue, or will Steffi Graf make a triumphant return to the sport? Hingis is an exceptional talent, but she may need a player of Graf's superstar stature to confirm her place among the greats.

Graf dropped off the circuit in June to repair a damaged knee and missed both Wimbledon and the US Open. She anticipates a return to competition in January, however, to challenge the 16-year-old Hingis, who narrowly missed achieving a Grand Slam, winning the Australian, Wimbledon, and US crowns, only to slip at the French, losing to Iva Majoli in the finals. Even there, though, she surprised herself by getting that far, given that she was returning from a surgery-induced absence.

If Graf is not up to challenging Hingis in Australia, it's possible that several teens, including Williams, might come of tennis age and at least give the sport's youngest No. 1 player a run for her considerable money.

Williams was the player who came into her own at Flushing Meadows, yet there are at least two other teens people are watching - Croatia's Mirjana Lucic, who lost a tough third-round US Open match to Jana Novotna, and Russia's Anna Kournikova, who only made it to the second round in New York, yet reached the semifinals at Wimbledon this year.

Kournikova was knocked off by Irina Spirlea, who entered the US Open as a virtual unknown although seeded 11th. Spirlea, a Romanian, proved a battler, and advanced all the way to a semifinal showdown with Williams, which produced not only one of the most exciting matches of the tournament (Williams prevailed 7-6, 4-6, 7-6) but also one of its few outwardly unpleasant moments. Walking to their chairs during a second-set changeover, neither player yielded ground, causing a collision that set off some sparks and laid bare the tension surrounding Williams's presence in tennis's upper echelon.

Williams's dad suggested that racism was rearing its ugly head against his daughter, who some consider as unfriendly as she is intimidating. Somebody should probably step in and resolve this for the good of the game, and surely the late Arthur Ashe, for whom the new US Open stadium is named, would have done so.

Decorum certainly held serve among the men, where there were no untoward incidents during a quiet yet intriguing tournament. Its main focus going in was on four-time champion Pete Sampras, whose bid for a Three-Pete (three US Open wins in a row) came up short in the fourth round, when 15th-seeded Petr Korda recovered from an 3-0 deficit in the fifth set to upset the defending champion, 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6. Korda produced one of the best celebratory leaps in memory, yet for true aficionados, the upset couldn't have been too surprising. Korda, after all, had extended Sampras to five sets at Wimbledon.

With Sampras gone and Korda forced to retire by illness in his next outing, the way seemed cleared for second-seeded Michael Chang to win only his second Slam title ever (he won the French Open in 1989). His baseline game, however, was no match for Rafter's strong serve-and-volley play, a style that Britain's Greg Rusedski employed to dispatch Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman in the other semifinal.

Rusedski, even in defeat, had fans oohing and aahing with his brute serving force in the final, where he set a new record with a serve clocked at 143 m.p.h. - in the fourth set no less.

Rafter, who is coached by former Aussie great Tony Roche, had previously reached five finals this year, but hadn't really put it all together until now. Whether his time in the spotlight will be as short-lived as Australia's Pat Cash's once was (Cash won Wimbledon in 1987 but then seemed to cash out quickly) remains to be seen. This victory vaults Rafter into a much higher profile (No. 3 in the men's ranking) and creates pressure for him to repeat his triumph in his homeland come January. No Australian has won the men's title there since 1976.

The Wide Open partly seems a reflection of the depth in tennis these days. Remember how unseeded Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil won the 1997 French Open? There are a host of dangerous players lurking in the woodwork and unless your name is Martina Hingis, who owns a 63-2 record in 1997, everyone seems to wear the "beatable" tag.

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