The dress said it all. Martina Hingis had taken it to New York last summer for the traditional U.S. Open champion's photo shoot, but she left it packed when Lindsay Davenport beat her in the final. That unworn dress symbolized a long year in which Hingis became suddenly old at 17. Last Saturday she sat in the backseat of a courtesy car as it weaved through the streets of Melbourne en route to the beach for the Australian Open's photo ceremony. "This is the best part of all, taking a picture with the trophy, in a social dress," Hingis said, flipping her freshly sprayed bob and smiling wickedly through layers of makeup applied for the occasion. Abruptly she unzipped her suede jacket, revealing the spectacular red minidress she hadn't worn in September. "This is quite cute, I think," she said. "Don't you?"
Three and a half hours earlier, in Melbourne Park, Hingis had beaten unseeded Amelie Mauresmo 6-2, 6-3 for her third consecutive Australian title and her fifth victory in the last nine Grand Slam championships. The match had been charged with tension because Hingis (with an assist from Davenport) had helped turn Mauresmo's powerful physique and openly gay relationship into a tabloid firestorm that left the 19-year-old Frenchwoman running from voracious television crews as if she were a corporate embezzler nailed by Mike Wallace. The final was also a showcase for Hingis's genius. Her ability to deftly mix power, creativity and pluck had enabled her to win three Grand Slam tides in 1997 but often deserted her last year, when she won only the Australian. "I have my game back," Hingis said the day before the final. "In fact, I have a different game. I'm a better player. I have to be, because the tour is better."
Not just better, but more intriguing, with subplot upon subplot. Pity the poor men's tour. On Sunday afternoon it trotted out Thomas Enqvist and Yevgeny Kafelnikov for a final between good players who are duller than oatmeal. (The 10th-seeded Kafelnikov, the 1996 French Open champion, beat the unseeded Enqvist in four sets to win his second Grand Slam trophy.) This was after a fatigued Pete Sampras skipped the tournament to play golf; the substitute top seed, Marcelo Rios, bailed out with a bad back; and Andre Agassi—who had said after three airtight wins, "I feel like a boa constrictor. I want to squeeze my opponents until they stop breathing"—uncoiled in a lifeless four-set, fourth-round loss to journeyman Vince Spadea.
Meanwhile, the women's draw offered its customary menu of entertainment. Anna Kournikova's every match was attended by the hormonal frenzy usually reserved for your finer strip clubs. At no extra charge Kournikova threw in a double-fault crisis, cranking out 31 in a single second-round match. ("I served 31 once," said men's quarterfinalist Todd Martin. "Of course, it was over a six-week period.") Kournikova was bounced in the fourth round by Mary Pierce. Venus Williams, who last January predicted that she would be No. 1 in the world by the end of the year, suffered a meltdown in her quarterfinal against Davenport after being penalized a game point for twice shedding a handful of her celebrated beads on the court. "I'm not causing a disturbance here!" she screamed to the chair umpire, causing a disturbance. The 18-year-old Williams, who lost the match 6-4,6-0, is No. 5 in the world and holding, still awaiting her first Grand Slam title.
Monica Seles gracefully carried the weight of another personal loss—the death in December of her maternal grandmother—into the semifinals, where she was dismantled by Hingis. To reach the semis she had beaten a faded legend, Steffi Graf, whose 21 Grand Slam titles, the last in 1996, seem more distant with each passing tournament.
L'Affaire Mauresmo dragged the tour into more delicate—if not altogether unfamiliar—territory. Mauresmo arrived in Melbourne on a quiet roll, having improved her world ranking by 80 places, from 109 to 29, in 1998. Her climb wasn't altogether unexpected. The native of Bornel, a small town in northern France, had won the '96 French Open and Wimbledon junior titles. Last May she reached the final of the German Open, beating Davenport in straight sets along the way, and late in the year she began working with a new coach, Christophe Fournerie. In Melbourne she saved two match points in her first-round victory over Corina Morariu and then improved with each round.
The 5'9", 142-pound Mauresmo played her matches in tight shorts and a tank top that exaggerated her build, which is athletic but hardly ripped. She also came out of the closet. During the first week of the tournament she introduced her companion, 31-year-old Sylvie Bourdon, to the French media and said, "You can say she is my girlfriend; you can write about her." Mauresmo met Bourdon at a party on Nov. 5 in Saint-Tropez, where Bourdon's family owns a popular nightspot called Le Gorille. "It was love at first sight," says Bourdon, who sat in the players' box during Mauresmo's matches and cheered animatedly. None of this caused the slightest stir until Mauresmo's 4-6,7-5,7-5 semifinal upset of Davenport, who came to Australia as the top-ranked player in the world.
In a press conference following the match, Davenport said, "A couple of times, I mean, I thought I was playing a guy out there, the girl was hitting it so hard, so strong, and I would look over there and she's so strong in the shoulders, those shoulders." Even those comments might have gone largely unnoticed had not Hingis, shortly afterward in an interview conducted in German, said of Mauresmo, "She's half a man; she's here with her girlfriend." With that, a cause célèbre was born. The Melbourne tabloid Herald Sun's approach was typical: two pictures—one of Mauresmo on the court, from the rear, and one of her and Bourdon nuzzling after the match—beneath the headline OH MAN, SHE'S GOOD.
Davenport was appalled at the tempest her statements had helped stir up. She wrote a note of apology that was delivered to Mauresmo at the Melbourne Hyatt Hotel on the night before the final. "Very gentle words, very sincere," said Mauresmo.
Hingis was less contrite. That same evening she sharply criticized the open nature of Mauresmo's relationship with Bourdon. "Everyone makes her own choices," Hingis said, "but you don't have to show it in everything you do. They are hugging and kissing each other all the time, and I'm just, 'O.K., there is a limit.' Now I think Mauresmo got her lesson. She won't show [affection] as much."