On the women's professional tennis tour, 1997 was the year Martina Hingis took her place among the game's elite. Hingis won 11 tournaments, including three of the four grand slam tournaments, the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. And in the other major event of the year, the French Open, she was a finalist. Hingis also won more than $3.4 million on the Women's Tennis Association 1997 tour. And, as you might expect, she was the number one ranked women's tennis player in the world for most of the year.
Chances are, if she hadn't missed a few tournaments due to a knee injury sustained when she fell off a horse in April, Hingis would have won the grand slam and over $4 million in earnings. It would have been the best season by any tennis player since 1988 when Steffi Graf won the grand slam and the Olympic Gold Medal. As it was, it was still pretty darned good.
Perhaps most remarkable about Hingis' achievements in 1997 is that she accomplished these feats before she turned 17 in late September. Her precocious development has resulted in Hingis achieving many milestones as the "youngest ever".
Youngest player to win a Grand Slam (Australian Open, 16 yrs. 3 mos.)
Youngest to win Wimbledon singles titles in the open era (16 yrs. 9 months)
Youngest player to achieve number one WTA ranking
While Hingis enjoyed an outstanding year on the tour, the departure of Steffi Graf in June due to knee surgery certainly cleared the way a bit. Graf is currently ranked number two all-time with 21 Grand Slam singles titles. Like Hingis in 1997, Graf had won three grand slams in 1996 and was poised in 1997 to make a case for herself as the most outstanding female tennis player of all-time. Graf announced that her return to the tour will start with the Australian Open in January of 1998. A victory in that tournament would give Graf at least five wins in each of the grand slam tournaments.
Another challenger for Martina Hingis' number one ranking will be her opponent in the finals of the 1997 U.S Open, Venus Williams. After being carefully brought along by her father and coach Richard Williams, the 17-year old Venus joined the WTA tour in 1997 and made steady progress throughout the year. But at the U.S. Open she stunned the tennis world by reaching the finals before losing to Hingis. Williams finished the year ranked 24th in the world. And rising.
Along with 1997 French Open winner Iva Majoli, star players like Graf, Williams and Hingis will make the 1998 WTA season an exciting one at a time when the sport could use a boost.
On the men's' tour, Pete Sampras was, in his own quiet but forceful way, making a case for himself as one of the best American male tennis players of all time. He won his ninth and tenth Grand Slam tournaments in 1997 at the Australian and Wimbledon, making 1997 the fifth consecutive year he has won at least one grand slam event. Sampras finished the grand slam season on an off-note by not even reaching the final eight at the U.S. Open. Sampras bounced back from that disappointment to win the Paris Open and the ATP Tour World Championship. He finished with earnings of more than $6 million in 1997 and he has now held the number one ranking for 20 consecutive months.
At the Franch Open, Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten became the lowest ranked player to win a major tennis tournament. Before the event at Stade Roland Garros, Kuerten was the 66th ranked player in the world and he finished the year at 14th.
Another relatively unknown player made a splash at a major tournament in 1997. Australian Patrick Rafter was derailed by injuries for most of 1996 but he came back strong in 1997. He made it to the quarter finals of the French Open for the first time as well as the finals of the Hamlet Cup and the Pilot Pen International tournaments. But he saved his best performance, and earned his first career win, at the U.S. Open when he defeated Greg Rusedski in finals. Rafter finished the year as the number two player in the world, delivering on the promise he showed when he was selected as the ATP Tour Newcomer of the Year in 1993.
For the men to enjoy a season as exciting as 1998 could be on the women's tour, players like Rafter and Rusedski must rise to the level of Sampras and take the place of Andre Agassi as Sampras' chief rival. Agassi's descent in the rankings is a shame for the sport but also telling. The grind of twelve years on the tour, and more than a little success though not as much as his early promise tantalized, has left Agassi preferring to be with Brooke Shields than on the practice court at seven in the morning. So he gets a healthy marriage and we are left to find someone to push Sampras to another level. Maybe that's the way it should be. But, for now, it's Sampras and then everybody else. And that's not exactly great for tennis.