PARIS -- Martina Hingis has been No. 1 for two months, hardly long enough to forget her predecessors, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Hardly long enough to know if she intends to make a home in the penthouse suite.
So yesterday, when Hingis walked on to Court Central at the French Open for her semifinal match against Seles, the No. 3 seed and now No. 2 women's tennis player in the world, every seat was taken.
This match would be Hingis' first real test in this Grand Slam and her first big test since becoming No. 1. She had beaten Seles twice earlier this spring, in a third-set tiebreaker in Hilton Head, S.C., and in a two-set romp at the Lipton on a hard court. But this was the first meeting between the two with the world watching at a Grand Slam.
It was enough to rivet the fans. You'd think it would have been enough to rivet Hingis, too.
But Hingis took her time in carving out a 6-7 (2-7), 7-5, 6-4 victory. And being a talented, mercurial teen-ager, she couldn't resist testing the patience of the tennis gods.
As Seles ran her around the court through the first two sets, Hingis tried to change the pace by throwing in nearly a dozen feathery drop shots. From the baseline. At incredibly questionable moments. They cost her at least one game in the first set and an additional break point in the second.
It was so bad that even Hingis had to laugh at herself, while her mother and coach Melanie Moliter hid her face in her hands.
"I don't know if we've entered the Martina Hingis era," said Seles. "Only time will tell that. But the way Martina is playing is just amazing tennis, not just for this tournament, but throughout the year. The consistency she has shown and the way she plays, with all the expectations, I think it's wonderful. It's obvious she has a great attitude. She's enjoying herself so much out there."
There seemed to be no nervousness yesterday. If she threw in a clunker of a shot, well, she just went harder after the next one.
It wasn't until the third set when stubborn loyalty to the drop shot finally gave way to practicality. By then, her legs were beginning to feel the weight of chasing after Seles' raging forehands, and desire for victory took over.
"I am so happy, I can't show you how much," Hingis said shortly after moving into her second Grand Slam final of the year. "I've never been so happy to win a match before."
That's quite a lot of happiness, given she already has won the Australian Open for Grand Slam title No. 1.
But she didn't know what to expect here. She fell off a horse seven weeks ago, had knee surgery and didn't play again until she arrived here. In the third set, when she was wearing down, she said she was almost shaking because she didn't want to lose. The French always has been her favorite tournament, she said, because she won two junior titles here. Now, she wants the big one.
"My goal was to reach the semifinals," said Hingis. "Now, I am in the finals, and I have just a great chance to win the whole tournament."
No exaggeration there. Hingis' opponent in tomorrow's final will be Iva Majoli, the No. 9 seed, who beat No. 11 Amanda Coetzer, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, yesterday to make it to her first Grand Slam final.
Majoli is also the first Croatian woman to play in a Grand Slam final.
Against Seles, Hingis was playing a woman known for her intensity and determination. She was also playing a woman who once dominated the red clay of Paris, winning three straight titles before being stabbed in the back four years ago.
In 1990, when Seles won for the first time here, she became the youngest women's Grand Slam champion in the modern era at 16 years, 6 months. It was a record that held until Hingis broke it last January in Australia.
"When I was little, Monica was kind of my idol because she just had a great game," said Hingis, who won't turn 17 until Sept. 30. "I mean, she's still playing the same way as she did before. I have to run, run, run all over the court when I play against her, and she's still very aggressive."
Seles' serve might even have improved some, Hingis allowed, then added with a giggle, "maybe not her movement."
Seles, comparatively old at 23, was obviously irked by her loss and disappointed in the way she played.
"Since I'm back, I don't have the strength and intensity of the strokes that I used to have," she said of the game that still has managed to take her to three Slam finals and an Australian Open title since her return in 1995.
"I'm missing way too many shots that before would just go in," she said. "That consistency -- Martina had that consistency throughout the match, especially at key times. I'd make what I thought was a perfect shot, and she'd make an unbelievable shot in return."
Hingis said she saw the dissatisfaction on Seles' face about the same time she herself was feeling similar doubts of her own.
"We were both kind of going for the big shots, just trying to not make any errors," Hingis said. "The better would win, and this time it was me again, so it was great."
So, for one day, the tennis gods smiled on a No. 1 seed. Tomorrow, their humor will be tested again.
Women's singles, semifinals
Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, def. Monica Seles (3), Sarasota, Fla., 6-7 (2-7), 7-5, 6-4; Iva Majoli (9), Croatia, def. Amanda Coetzer (11), South Africa, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5.
Men's doubles, semifinals
Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde (1), Australia, def. Lucas Arnold and Daniel Orsanic, Argentina, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3; Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Russia, and Daniel Vacek (4), Cz. Rep., def. Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis (2), Netherlands, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-3).
Pub Date: 6/06/97