Hard to believe that only three months ago Martina Hingis was
affronted by the suggestion that there might be challengers to
her No. 1 ranking in women's tennis. "Rivalries?" she scoffed.
"I'm up like 3,000 points. There are no rivalries for me." Since
then, Hingis has been one big Swiss mis-hit. She has failed to
win a singles event since the Italian Open in May, and her points
lead has all but vaporized. What's more, with opponents--no,
rivals--increasingly hip to her tendencies, Hingis's winless
streak isn't likely to end in New York.
Who does that leave as the U.S. Open favorite on the female
side? The people's choice, Monica Seles, won a tune-up event in
Montreal but lacks the stamina to grind out seven straight
matches. The other sentimental choice, five-time champ Steffi
Graf, is struggling with her timing and consistency.
Chest-bumpee Venus Williams made her breakthrough at last year's
Open, but a nagging knee injury will preclude her return to the
finals. That leaves the door ajar for the two hottest players,
Lindsay Davenport and Jana Novotna. Having slain her personal
dragon at Wimbledon, Novotna will try to serve-and-volley her
way to a second straight Grand Slam title. If she keeps her wits
about her, she may well succeed. But it says here that the
affable Davenport will become the first American-born woman to
win the U.S. Open since Chris Evert in 1982.
The men's draw is suffused with less drama, particularly since
so many top players are struggling. Pete Sampras (above) has
been in hibernation since winning Wimbledon, his tendency to
fatigue more pronounced than ever lately. After briefly
achieving the No. 1 ranking last month, Marcelo Rios lost three
of four matches, none to a player ranked in the top 25.
Resilient Andre Agassi won two events in July but has since
reverted to his erratic ways. If he gets hot, he could tear
through a soft draw, but don't be surprised if he falls to
crafty Karol Kucera in the fourth round.
Defending champ Patrick Rafter is playing as well as anyone and
has a chance to be No. 1 if he runs the table. Still, it's hard
to bet against Sampras. With the meter running in his quest to
eclipse Roy Emerson's Holy Grail of 12 career Grand Slam titles,
he has plenty of motivation to overcome his lassitude. If his
body doesn't betray him, he'll find a way to become the King of
Queens for the fifth time.
--L. Jon Wertheim
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG [Pete Sampras in game]