NEW YORK -- Steffi Graf eventually won her fifth WTA Tour championships title yesterday, but not before tenacious teen-ager Martina Hingis had forced her to play five hard sets.
Hingis, 16, playing in her first Chase Championships final, refused to give in to either Graf's will or her own severe leg cramps.
The two combined for brilliant baseline rallies, tantalizing, cat-and-mouse drop shots and incredible series of volleys before Graf finally took an easy fifth set and the match, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, 4-6, 6-0.
"Martina has had an incredible year," said Graf. "But I don't know who felt 16 and 27 on the court today. To play this final is an incredible achievement for her at 16. People talk about the young players and as fast as she's going, she's definitely the one to look out for."
By the time it was over -- in 2 hours, 49 minutes -- both women were in tears -- Hingis from pain and the frustration of losing and Graf from overwhelming applause from the 15,256 fans in Madison Square Garden.
This is Graf's fifth season-ending title in 12 appearances and the eighth time she has left the event with the No. 1 ranking.
Hingis stepped into the No. 4 spot for the first time in her two-year career. She also became the youngest tennis player to top $1 million in career earnings when she accepted her check for $250,000. Graf received $500,000.
"I just wanted to cry," said Hingis, when asked her feelings in the fifth set. "You make a fifth set against Steffi, and then you're not really able to force her anymore, because you don't have any power in yourself. She played a great match. Wherever she plays, she wins the tournament.
"She's a big player, and she can handle injuries and things better than I do."
Graf has had a lot more practice. Just last weekend, her aching back forced her to default during the final in Philadelphia. And yesterday, when she made a 1997 wish list, her No. 1 desire was good health, No. 2 that life in general would get a little bit easier.
"I'm glad this season is over in a way," said Graf, who has had to deal not only with her own physical problems, but also the personal problems of her father and his trial for tax evasion. "I think, though last year's results were the same, given all the things I've been through, this year topped them. I think I really outdid myself."
Graf opened the door to Hingis in the second set, when her forehand deserted her.
But no one was getting any easy chances yesterday, as both Graf and Hingis had to hit at least one extra ball -- and sometimes two, three and four -- to win points.
"I've never played five sets before, and I've never had leg cramps before," said Hingis. "I'm sure the reason for them today was that Steffi led me all around the court all the time."
After Graf won the third set, 6-0, Hingis was in the midst of turning the tables in the fourth when the cramps showed up.
"You could see how it affected me," Hingis said. "I just couldn't really serve anymore and it also was bad for my backhand."
Hingis was up 4-1 and running like crazy to break Graf for the second time in the set. She completed the job with a low, deep backhand winner, but when she struck the shot, she immediately pulled up lame.
She stretched her left leg and then began serving for the set. Her movement was obviously hampered, and Graf broke for 5-2. Minutes later, Graf closed to 5-4 to get back on serve.
It was then Hingis disappeared into a hallway to stretch for perhaps five minutes, while Graf iced her knee and then got up and paced around the court.
Finally, Hingis returned and managed to break Graf again to win the set and force the final set.
"If I had been Martina, I would have been doing the same things," Graf said. "She didn't want to give up. I didn't let the delay bother me. But when she came back and I knew she was hurting, I didn't try to force the points."
And Hingis was gritting her teeth and trying not to give up.
"I did think about quitting, especially during the fourth set," Hingis said.
"It's just not very good for any tennis player if you don't fight until the last point."
Pub Date: 11/25/96