It was the kind of surreal scene that makes women's tennis sometimes seem more like a Coen brothers film than a professional sport. Less than four hours before the start of the Chase Championships in New York City on Nov. 13, while Martina Hingis cohosted a press function thrown by her clothing sponsor at the Regal U.N. Plaza Hotel, she was unexpectedly approached by an envoy of Richard Williams, whose daughters Venus and Serena had bailed out of the tournament citing anemia and a bum foot respectively. " Mr. Williams personally asked me to come here and wish you every possible success," Williams family business adviser Leland Hardy told Hingis, who looked as baffled as a film critic following a screening of Battlefield Earth.
Hingis showed the kind of mettle that would carry her to a 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 win over an inspired Monica Seles in Sunday's Chase final: She quickly composed herself, giving Hardy a hearty handshake and offering what might have been an appropriate coda to the season-ending championships at Madison Square Garden—if it hadn't been for the final. "I miss the girls being around," she said.
In the end, they weren't needed. Though the field did not exactly reflect an event that both Hingis and Seles labeled "the fifth Grand Slam," the Chase was saved by a stirring final in what may be Seles's last year-end tour championships. Five of the world's top 16 players (the Williamses, Mary Pierce, Anke Huber and Am�lie Mauresmo) withdrew before a single ball bounced on the Garden's blue carpet. After No. 2 Lindsay Davenport exited in a New York minute, losing to Elena Dementieva in the first round, the chase for the Chase came down to veterans Hingis and Seles fighting off young guns Dementieva and (surprise!) Anna Kournikova. The old guard got through to the end, but the young Russians nearly stole the show.
The 19-year-old Dementieva, an unexpected U.S. Open semifinalist and Olympic silver medalist, survived a battle of future champions with 17-year-old Kim Clijsters of Belgium before falling to her childhood idol, Seles, in straight sets in the semifinals. Fans of Dementieva's more celebrated countrywoman, Kournikova, could also take heart. She may have lost to Hingis 7-6, 6-2 in the other semifinal, but she finally made fans notice her for her play rather than her looks. She bullied Hingis early in their match and even served for the opening set before playing a frazzled tiebreaker and fizzling out in the second set.
Hingis and Kournikova will spend plenty of time together next year. The former confirmed last week that their on-again, off-again Spice Girls doubles pairing will become a full-time partnership in 2001. That sets up a delicious doubles rivalry with the Williams sisters, and after Hingis and Kournikova beat up on Manon Bollegraf and Nicole Arendt to win their second straight Chase doubles final, Hingis threw down a minigauntlet. "It would be great if we could play the Williamses more often," she said, "now that Anna and I have proven we're a consistent team."
Once upon a time in New York, Seles was flush with that kind of teen spirit, and she rekindled visions of previous year-end successes (three titles before she turned 20) with her run last week. But while next year's championships will have $1 million more in prize money, they probably won't have Seles. That's because the tournament will move from the Garden to Munich's Olympia Halle, and Seles reiterated last week that she is not likely to play in Germany, where she was stabbed by a deranged fan of Steffi Graf in 1993. Seles complained that she learned of the tour's decision to move the event by reading about it in USA Today last spring. "I was hurt," said Seles, who was a member of the WTA players' council at the time of the decision. "It was not so much that it's going away [from New York] but that no one called me or said, 'We've done this deal, and this is what's happening.' "
At least she can take away a sweet souvenir if last week was indeed her last hurrah at the season-ending tournament. She had been away from the tour for the past five weeks and would probably have skipped the Chase to further heal the tendinitis in both of her feet had this not been the event's Garden finale. Fighting through a pulled groin muscle and buoyed by a crowd that clearly favored her, Seles slugged it out with Hingis before netting a service return that gave her opponent the crown. "There were probably a couple of times where I reached a wall," Seles said afterward, "but I knew I just wanted to win this match. I just tried to push through it."
She fell short in the end but saved the tournament in the process. Well done, Monica. You'll be missed in Munich.