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Serena versus Hingis — U.S. Open 20th anniversary

Matt Zemek

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Tennis With An Accent

The 1999 U.S. Open women’s final between Serena Williams and Martina Hingis owns a lofty place in the tennis pantheon.

Venus Williams was widely regarded as the better Williams sister in 1999. She made the 1997 U.S. Open final and lost to Hingis. In 2000 and 2001, Venus won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before Serena’s career truly took off in 2002. Venus was more developed at that time. Yet, Serena made her way through the first six rounds of the 1999 U.S. Open and had her chance to beat Venus to the victory podium at a major tournament.

When people think of Serena Williams today, in 2019, the first thing which comes to mind is the greatest serve in the history of women’s tennis. When the conversation deepens on Serena, a lot of people cite her power.

To be sure, Serena’s powerful serves, returns and groundstrokes make her extremely formidable. Yet, to assign almost all of Serena’s greatness to her power sells her short.

The 1999 U.S. Open was the first especially prominent and memorable demonstration of this reality.

Serena has spent 20 years digging out of tough spots, adjusting to in-form opponents, and winning complicated matches with the tennis IQ every legendary player possesses. She has won so many big matches after enduring difficult stretches against crafty opposition.

Serena’s ability to solve problems on court is unrivaled in 21st century women’s tennis.

Consider all the formidable yet diverse adversaries she has managed to thwart in supremely big moments:

Justine Henin’s variety. Victoria Azarenka’s defense. Elena Dementieva’s consistency. Agnieszka Radwanska’s all-court game. Serena has stopped so many challengers over the years. She is more than just a hammer or a blowtorch. She can handle change-ups and off-speed pitches. She can win when she is not at her best.

Even at this past Wimbledon, she was down a break in the third set to Alison Riske, who had just defeated World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty. Serena could have flinched at age 37. She didn’t. She made yet another Wimbledon final, her fourth in her last four appearances at the All-England Club. You can’t do something like that if you don’t have world-class coping skills.

Those skills have been in evidence for 20 years, and they have endured at a high level – so well and so reliably that Serena has become the first woman in the Open Era to return to the same major-tournament final 20 years after her first appearance. Yes, Serena will play in the 2019 U.S. Open women’s final after playing in the 1999 championship match against Hingis.

As we look back 20 years, it is supremely fitting that Serena’s first major title in 1999 – a championship created by problem-solving — came against the woman who was then the ultimate quizmaster, the WTA player who asked so many difficult questions to her opponents.

Martina Hingis won five major titles from 1997 through 1999. She, like Serena, was still a teenager in 1999, but she played like a 10-year veteran of the tour.

(Kinda like the woman Serena will face on Saturday, Bianca Andreescu. The style of play posed by Hingis is completely different from Andreescu’s brand of ball, but in terms of competing like 10-year pros instead of rookies at a very early age, Hingis and Bibi are strongly connected.)

Wily, clever, and creative, Hingis varied speeds and angles with such deftness that opponents were constantly thrown off balance. Hingis took the ball very early, which robs opposing tennis players of the thing they need most: time. Hingis lacked power, but for a few years, that lack of power didn’t matter.

Serena, despite her powerful game, was not expected to beat the top-seeded Hingis. The Swiss Miss had just beaten Serena’s older sister Venus in a high-quality three-set semifinal. Serena, seeded seventh, beat No. 2 seed Lindsay Davenport in the semis.

Serena was in a competitive groove at this U.S. Open. In fact, she had engaged in the best problem solving of her career up to that point, just short of her 18th birthday.

She beat Kim Clijsters in the third round and Conchita Martinez in the fourth. She defeated Monica Seles in the quarterfinals. She lost the first set 6-4 in those three matches but won each match in three sets. Counting the Davenport semifinal, Serena won four straight 3-setters at the 1999 U.S. Open against players who would either win majors in the future or had already won them. Serena was, even then, defined by so much more than mere power.

Yet, Hingis was the power absorber. She took Venus’s devastating groundstrokes in the semifinals and spat them back into the open court. Hingis didn’t need to take big swings; she could redirect the ball and leave opponents scrambling. Hingis figured to do this to Serena and continue her rise on the major title list. Many people in tennis felt that Hingis, not even 20 years old, would win double-digit majors and gain a higher place in tennis history.

Serena Williams, though still a few years away from dominating women’s tennis, made the first big statement of her career: “Excuse me, Martina. I will have the storybook career. You will have five majors and plenty to look back on with affection and fondness, but I will have true immortality.”

Serena wasn’t ready to rule women’s tennis the way she did in 2002, 2009, 2012, or especially 2015, but she WAS ready to win this match.

On center stage in New York. Serena outplayed Hingis in a 6-3 first set. She received more pushback in the second, as Hingis regrouped and provided the kind of fight most people expected. The match arrived at a supreme pressure cooker, a second-set tiebreaker. Serena had the chance to close down the match, but if she let that opportunity slip away, Hingis would have been in great position to swipe the title in the third set and enter the year 2000 as The One To Beat on the WTA Tour.

Who would prevail? Serena was the steadier, more authoritative player. In an instructive final note, the tiebreaker did not end on a powerful Serena serve or a blistering return, but on a Hingis error in a rally, the kind of rally Hingis figured to win.

Serena had the answers for the quizmaster. She hasn’t looked back since.

Hingis had a great career, but the meteoric rise which seemed within her grasp never reached the 21st century. Five major titles represent a terrific singles career, but Hingis – who had lost a very close Roland Garros final to Steffi Graf earlier in 1999 – was scarred by this match. She came close to winning the 1999 U.S. Open and other majors, but she could not restore her place as the very best women’s tennis player on the planet.

In this century, Serena Williams has clearly been that player.

Who knew, 20 years ago, this match would contain such long-lasting historical resonance? That’s a big part of what makes Serena-Hingis at the 1999 U.S. Open so special.

The fact that Serena is in the 2019 U.S. Open final only reinforces the seismic impact of her first major singles championship, won inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. History once again stands before Serena as she goes for title No. 24 against Bianca Andreescu, another teenager who – like Martina Hingis in 1999 — figures to ask a tough set of tennis questions with a tennis mind far more advanced than her age would suggest.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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