Graf wins crowd, then French Open; Frustrated No. 1 Hingis reduced to tears, 2nd


PARIS -- And the crowd's will was done.

As No. 1 Martina Hingis wilted under the deluge of 16,000 manic voices cheering and raging for Steffi Graf, Graf, the 29-year-old former champion, thrived.

"I feel French," Graf told the wild crowd as she collected her 22nd Grand Slam trophy after a come-from-behind, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, victory yesterday.

"It has been such a long comeback, ever since my knee operation," she said. "I've been so up and down and this is so unexpected and this is a wonderful way to end my time here."

Graf said this will be her last French Open but did not say this will be her last season.

Is it Grand Slam by Grand Slam? "It's tournament by tournament," she said.

If this is her last, it was a great one and, perhaps, one of the most bizarre matches in memory. Filled with penalty points, tears and frustration, it also had some amazing tennis.

Graf, who seemed near a two-set exit when Hingis served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, rallied on the insistent voices of the crowd that sur rounded Court Central at Roland Garros.

"I've played all around the world," Graf said after winning for the sixth time here. "But I've never had a crowd like that ever. Never. At times out there they actually got me back in the match and helped me to win. That's something that doesn't happen."

Hingis had never experienced anything like it either. Was this a soccer match? A bull fight? With every striking of the ball, the crowd would cheer. Banners waved: "Steffi Forever".

By the end, Hingis' mother had to lead her back on the court for the post-match ceremonies. And they stood together for a long time near the umpire's chair, with the daughter sobbing inconsolably on the mother's shoulder, a towel pressed to her face.

Hingis, finally composed, listened while Graf grasped her first Grand Slam trophy in three years.

After the on-court display, a trip around the net to protest a ball call, racket abuse, a tear-filled change over and a whacky underhanded serve on Graf's first match point, the veteran thought her younger opponent needed the reminder that it's only a game.

"I was surprised by how she reacted at times," Graf said. "I've never seen a player do some of the things she did out there -- come around the net. We all know it's not done and it's a game out there. Sometimes I felt for her it was more than that."

Hingis, in her second French Open final, knew she had missed an opportunity. She had served for the match at 5-4 and was three points away from clinching it.

"It is so hard to lose this way," Hingis said. "Steffi is a great player and I wanted to beat her in this final so much."

Only a day earlier, Hingis had suggested it was Graf who would suffer from nerves, being in her first final since the 1996 U.S. Open.

And in the first set, it looked as if Hingis may have been right. Graf's slice backhand seemed to have deserted her. And her forehand, so often a cure of woe, was also less than sharp.

But as the match wore on, it was Hingis who found out just what a mentally tough competitor Graf is and it was her own emotions that came undone.

It started in the third game of the second set with Graf serving. Till then, most of the crowd was for Graf, but not in a frenzy. But on the first point of that third game, Hingis became obsessed with an out call on her forehand return.

The umpire climbed from the chair to check the mark. Graf checked the mark. The line judge came on court and checked the mark. Hingis, who had watched all this from her side of the net, suddenly came around the net and as the umpire went back to her chair, and with Graf watching, Hingis walked to the spot where she thought the ball had landed and smacked her racket on the surface.

Graf laughed out loud, the mark seemed so far from where everyone else saw it land. But Hingis wasn't done. She then walked to her chair and sat. Finally, after more complaining, and a warning and a penalty point for going on the other side of the net, she returned to play.

At that point, the crowd belonged to Graf.

Hingis didn't help herself with a bathroom break early in the third set that went on so long Graf had time to join in the wave with her 16,000 friends. Already warned twice, Hingis was lucky not to have gotten the third that meant automatic disqualification.

But as she buried her head in her towel to cry, it was a momentarily pathetic scene as the crowd roared "Steffi! Steffi!" with such furry it would have stunned anyone.

Asked the key factor for her loss, Hingis sighed deeply.

"Not fighting her and the whole crowd," Hingis said. "But in the third set, Steffi didn't miss any more and I didn't know what to do. And there were other factors -- the ref, the line calls. The one I questioned, Steffi knew the mark was there, but OK, whatever. If you're better, you win anyway.

"I had such a chance. I don't think Steffi believed in herself in the second set. I should have won the second set."

Instead, Graf is back on top.

NOTE: Venus and Serena Williams, seeded No. 9, won their women's doubles semifinal match against No. 12 Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce, 6-4, 6-1, yesterday. They will now play for the title against No. 2 seed Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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