"COME ON BACK MARTINA"
Rise and fall of Martina Hingis
December 25 2002
Martina Hingis during the 2002 Open final.
After a flying start in the 2002 Australian Open final, the heat and Capriati got to the Swiss Miss, writes Jake Niall.
The 2002 Australian Open final encapsulates the career of Martina Hingis: she began brilliantly, but as the match became a test of strength and stamina, rather than skill and cunning, she was overpowered by the bigger, more resilient woman.
Hingis had been beaten by Jennifer Capriati in the Australian Open final 12 months earlier. On that occasion, Capriati had played the role of sentimental Cinderella, burying the demons that had interrupted and almost ended her career while a teenager.
But, by Australia Day 2002, Hingis was no longer the standard-bearer for women's tennis and the smart money was on the beloved Jennifer.
The Hingis game - founded on deft placement, anticipation and court-craft - had been superseded by the power of Lindsay Davenport, Capriati and especially the imposing Williams sisters.
Hingis entered the final not having won a grand slam title at her previous 12 attempts, having lost the past two finals at Melbourne Park. In hindsight, the 2002 final might be remembered as her last shot at beating the big girls.
Since that searing afternoon, the tyranny of the Amazons has grown more pronounced while Hingis, felled by a serious foot injury, has played in only one slam (the US Open).
The official temperature for the final was 36 degrees. Within the microwave confines of Rod Laver Arena, it was more like 46. Remarkably, the roof remained open because it was still two degrees shy of the number needed to close the roof - a rule that, thanks to this brutal epic, has been changed.
The conditions transformed the match into a Darwinian struggle. By the third set the contest felt more like boxing than tennis. Players would win points simply because their opponent was too tired. Passing shots were supplanted by passing-out shots.
The players took unorthodox measures to protect themselves from the sun. They stood in the shade between points and took toilet breaks. At the end of the second set, they were allowed a 10-minute breather.
Like boxing, you wondered whether there was a serious risk of harm, yet there was also something compelling about seeing athletes - and women - test their physical and mental limits. It was just as well, though, that this was not the best of five sets.
Initially, Hingis had been sublime. She won the first set 6-4 and, quickly hustling through the points, was up 4-0 in the second set before the first sign of wobbles.
Capriati was on the edge of a rout, but kept slipping the noose. She saved a break point that would have put her down 1-5. Then, she faced - and fended off - four match points, at 3-5, 5-6 and in the tiebreak. Whenever Capriati was on the brink, she was bold.
Did Hingis choke? Perhaps. It's possible that her nerves failed at first, then her body. Once she had lost the tiebreak 7-9 and squandered those match points, you sensed that it was over.
The third set was somewhat anti-climactic. Martina, like the beaten boxer, had been dead on her feet long before the knockout.
Later, she admitted she had felt signs of dehydration midway through the match. Capriati said she found it difficult to breathe. Neither player had ever experienced such on-court oppression.
"I really don't know how I won," said Capriati. Hingis did not use the heat as an excuse. "It's the same for both, so whoever's stronger," she said.
Strength, stamina and sheer will had beaten skill.
And, looking back, you wonder if women's tennis will ever belong to the small girl again.