In This Corner - Is The Williamses
This writer was kinda ruff on Martina.
June 8, 2002, 11:50PM
Meltdown hastens big-babe tennis era
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
PARIS -- The Williams vs. Williams, No. 1 vs. No. 2 confrontation at Roland Garros on Saturday proved roughly four parts flop to one part fabulous, with the most memorable points being the comically bad ones. No wonder the sisters so hate to face each other.
But Serena's 7-5, 6-3 victory for the French Open championship was not without merit. It squared the family's Grand Slam head-to-head finals standing at 1-1, providing a hopeful early indication that what figures to be a lengthy and compelling internecine rivalry won't be one-sided either way.
While Big Sis still has a leg up -- two actually -- in overall Slam matches between the two, Serena made significant psychological strides on a blustery afternoon that marked the three-year anniversary of a bizarre, unprecedented and arguably destiny-altering moment for the two-headed Williams monster.
While the event in question was only superficially disturbing as it occurred -- and seemingly unrelated to what transpired this day -- in retrospect we see how it impacted the past, present and possibly future of tennis.
Martina Hingis' total meltdown over a simple line call -- one probably in error, but who knows and did it really matter? -- was indeed seminal, a volcanic temper tantrum that altered the course of tennis history.
When Hingis' gold-dusted career imploded in its wake, it cleared a wide swath for Venus and Serena, immensely gifted but grossly underdeveloped, to fast-track their way to the top.
Further, it provided an unexpected epilogue to Steffi Graf's splendiferous run while serendipitously forging a union of champions' genes that makes Jaden Gil Agassi without a doubt the most celebrated 7-month-old prospect ever.
All because Hingis lost her nut for no good reason? You got it.
That afternoon, Martina was routinely going about her business of cleaning Steffi's aging clock.
Up a set and an early break, Hingis was four games from claiming her sixth major in less than 30 months, and she wasn't yet 20 years old. Even Graf, once the very definition of precocity herself, hadn't accomplished so much so quickly.
But then came the dispute, and when Hingis wasn't given the overrule she sought, the spoiled-brat teenager from hell lurking inside the pretty Swiss coquette suddenly boiled over, and a remarkable career began to unravel before our eyes. The most accomplished tennis teen of the 20th century hasn't won anything of import since.
First, the late-blooming Lindsay Davenport eclipsed her. Then came the Venus-Serena one-two punch followed by the startling rise of the comeback kid, Jennifer Capriati.
Collectively, the quartet reinvented the women's game with a boom-boom style Pam Shriver dubbed "big-babe tennis," a game that left the clever stylist Hingis on the outside looking in.
The distractions of tumbling into and out of love in conjunction with numerous physical maladies -- brought on by a not-insignificant weight gain as her adolescent body matured -- and uninspired practice habits completed the wreckage.
At present, Hingis is out indefinitely, recovering from surgery to repair ligaments in her left ankle after having ligaments in her right ankle fixed only last fall.
Between the injuries and ennui, never mind her current infatuation with Spain's hot young golfer Sergio Garcia, it's unclear if she'll ever again be a factor on the final day of major tournaments. Had Capriati not proved it's possible to rise from the ashes of self-immolation, we'd have to summarily dismiss Hingis as done. The game doesn't wait for anybody.
It's a given the two Williamses, the best female athletes ever to choose tennis as a vocation, would have claimed the summit as their own family fiefdom eventually. But Hingis' breakdown rushed the process. What we'll never know is how long Martina could have kept the sisters at bay with her almost arrogant confidence and sublime tactics. No less of an expert observer than Chris Evert had once called Hingis "a genius."
It was Evert, of course, who first tantalized us with the idea of two superstars falling in love, marrying and producing an offspring full of perfect genes. Chrissie and Jimmy Connors conquered Wimbledon together in 1974 while they were engaged to be married. But the relationship faltered in autumn's chill, and they soon parted ways.
Graf and Andre Agassi, in contrast, went a decade without connecting on a level deeper than polite hellos. But Graf's lucky break at Roland Garros, when the unhinged Hingis handed her a championship she hadn't expected to add to her stash, coincided with Andre's capping his career Grand Slam here.
Their convergence of shared elation created a strong chemical reaction. They were in Paris, after all. Unlike Chrissie, only 20 when she fell for Jimmy, Steffi was 29, close to retiring and ready to put life on the front burner. Agassi had recently divorced Brooke Shields. Voila!
Marriage and the baby Jaden Gil followed. Assuming bloodlines do matter, Pete Sampras' men's record of 13 Slams won was immediately in jeopardy. As for Graf's Open-Era women's standard of 22, if a distant threat looms, her name is now Williams, not Hingis.
More good news for Graf there, though: Saturday's result indicates Venus and Serena will share the spoils, beating each other often enough to preserve Steffi's perch on Olympus.
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