When Steffi Graf was struggling with injuries during the spring and early summer of 1998, she sought opinions from doctors and trainers about the future of her career. She didn't ask Martina Hingis for her opinion, but got it anyway by reading a Tennis Magazine article.
"It's a faster, more athletic game now," Hingis was quoted as saying of Graf. "She's older now. Her time has passed."
Hingis, 18, will have a chance to prove her point Saturday afternoon when she meets the 29-year-old Graf in the French Open women's singles final. At stake for the top-seeded Hingis will be the only Grand Slam title she doesn't own. At stake for the sixth-seeded Graf will be her first Grand Slam title since winning the U.S. Open in 1996. And a little redemption.
"I know I can play well, and I know I can beat anybody," said Graf, who has not been in a Grand Slam final since that victory in New York in 1996. "But it's really a matter of playing that kind of tennis when it counts. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. So far I've been able to do it here."
It has not been an easy road. While Hingis has not lost a set in this tournament, Graf needed three sets to defeat both No. 3 seed Monica Seles, whom she defeated in the semifinals, and No. 2 seed Lindsay Davenport, whom she defeated in the quarterfinals.
Still, if Graf is used to anything, it is overcoming adversity. After sweeping the Grand Slams in 1995 and 1996, she was hindered by injuries at the start of 1997 and underwent season-ending surgery on her left knee in June of that year. She returned in February 1998, only to strain a hamstring in her second tournament back. Last May, she injured her ankle and dropped out of the WTA Tour's rankings altogether, although she was back at No. 91 the following week.
Graf rebounded slightly toward the end of the year, defeating Hingis en route to an indoor title in Philadelphia, but this past January she lost in the Australian Open quarterfinals, looking nervous in a loss to Seles. The rumblings that she couldn't win another major title got a little louder, and this spring brought more surgery, this time on her foot. After a poor showing in Berlin last month, Graf intended to use her time here as a warmup for Wimbledon.
Instead, her comeback is ahead of schedule. No matter what happens Saturday, her ranking will jump three spots to No. 3 -- her best since giving up the No. 1 spot to Hingis in March 1997. "There have been a lot of moments that I really haven't been happy with the way I've been playing," Graf said. "There were a lot of moments when I was doubting what I was doing out there because I didn't really play up to my potential. Then I had a long break [because of the foot surgery], and that gave me a lot of doubts.
"So it's great after a few years to be in another final. That's something I really didn't believe that I'd be able to do when I got here."
Hingis has had no such doubts. She won the Australian Open in January and has been rolling through the season, claiming titles in Tokyo, Hilton Head Island, S.C., and Berlin and reaching the final at the adidas International in Sydney. After trouncing defending champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 6-3, 6-2, here Thursday, she noted that Graf already has won the French Open title five times.
"Steffi has a good serve, and everybody knows her strengths," Hingis said. ". . . She is a player who gives you time to do something on clay.
"She's been [to the final here] so many times. This is about time for me, at least once."