Nothing quite sets a tennis court alive than a generational struggle. Be it John McEnroe trying to overtake Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, Monica Seles versus Chris Evert, Roger Federer against Pete Sampras, the clash of age and experience, emotion and ego, can often create exceptional fireworks.
Such was the case on this day when Martina Hingis and Steffi Graf walked on to Court Central for the 1999 women’s singles final. Hingis was the prodigy, at 18 having already won five Grand Slam singles titles – Roland Garros the only jewel missing in her youthful crown. Graf was the veteran, winner at the time of 21 Grand Slam singles titles, including five at Roland Garros. Less than two weeks shy of turning 30, injuries had kept Graf out of Roland Garros the previous year.
Hingis was certain this was her time, racing off to a 5-2 first set lead. But though Graf ended up losing it 6-4, she had clawed back just enough to inch her way into contention.
Despite going up 2-0 in the second, Hingis remained edgy, wound to the point that she would subsequently make a decision that likely turned her career around in a very different direction. Questioning a line call on a ball she’d hit, Hingis committed the tennis equivalent of a technical foul in basketball, crossing over the net to review the mark. The crowd, inherently predisposed towards the older Graf, became even more vocal in its support of Graf and anger towards Hingis. Nothing in tennis is quite as harsh as the disdain of a Parisian crowd. The entire texture of the match now changed.
Though Hingis would in time have the chance to serve for the precious title at 5-4 in the second, she played a terrible game, trying a drop shot from behind the baseline at break point. Graf went to win eight of the next nine points to even the match and then go up 3-0 in the third. Hingis fought, even holding points for 3-all. But Graf now was moving too well, her shots striking deeper, from the crisp forehands to the biting backhands. In the end, Graf handily won the final set, 6-2.
Hingis was in tears – and though she’d reach several more Grand Slam singles finals, she’d never again win another. Graf went on to reach the Wimbledon final, losing to Lindsay Davenport. Later that summer she’d announce her retirement.
It was arguably the most joyful win of Graf’s career. “I feel French,” she said following the match. “I’ve played all over the world, but I’ve never had a crowd like this one – ever.”
(with thanks to Randy Walker and Mikki Singh for their app, On This Day in Tennis History)
(a big thanks to my Tennis Channel colleague Steve Flink and his book, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time”)
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