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Belinda Bencic and Sebastian Korda look to mentors’ Melbourne moments for inspiration
Twenty-five years ago, Martina Hingis and Petr Korda took home the trophies Down Under; both have played pivotal roles in the development of these 2023 title hopefuls.
Published Jan 22, 2023
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Who doesn’t love a good origin story? Or even two? This year marks the 25th anniversary of a pair of Australian Open title runs that have left deep fingerprints on one man and one woman who hope to repeat the victory laps of their mentors.
Two years before Sebastian Korda was born, his father and formative coach, Petr, won the 1998 Australian Open men’s singles title.
Belinda Bencic was less than a year old in ‘98 when one of her touchstone advisors, Martina Hingis, earned the second of three consecutive Australian Open triumphs.
Petr at the time was 29 years old (he’d turn 30 on the tournament’s first Friday) and ranked seven in the world. A pro since 1987, Korda was regarded as a dangerous shot maker, owner of a lefthanded all-court game that at its best could paint every possible corner with sharp angles and crisp drives. At Roland Garros in 1992, Korda made it to the finals, his most notable victory a comeback from two sets to love down in the second round versus Shuzo Matsuoka. Over the subsequent five years, Korda reached the quarterfinals of a major three times.
His 1998 kicked off superbly. Ranked 13 as the year began, Korda played terrific tennis at the season’s first stop in Doha. Advancing to the finals, he took on the clever master of spin and touch, Fabrice Santoro. Coming into that match, Santoro had beaten Korda four out of five times. But on this occasion, Korda won easily, 6-0, 6-3.
Off Korda went to Melbourne. Seeded sixth, he dropped just one set on the way to the quarters, where Korda faced the formidable Jonas Bjorkman. Ranked fourth, Bjorkman had beaten Korda just months earlier at the same stage of the ’97 US Open – one round after Korda had eliminated Pete Sampras. In Melbourne, Bjorkman won the first two sets. But as he had nearly six years earlier at Roland Garros, Korda rallied to win the next three, earning a satisfying 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
Meanwhile, the draw had opened up. Sampras, the holder, was beaten in the quarterfinals by Karol Kucera. Alberto Berasategui upset second-seeded Patrick Rafter and past champion Andre Agassi. Recent finalists, seventh-seeded Carlos Moya (’97) and third-seeded Michael Chang (’96), went out earlier than anticipated, as did fifth-seeded Greg Rusedski and eighth-seeded Thomas Muster. Two-time titlist Jim Courier was absent.
The seas having parted, Korda’s semifinal opponent was the 20th-ranked Kucera. Surviving a third set hiccup, Korda won 6-1, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2.
The final was a tennis rarity, an all-lefty matchup between Korda and ninth-seeded Marcelo Rios. As lively a ball-striker as Korda was, Rios could do even more, an exceptionally rare talent blessed with sublime technique, timing, and court sense. At its best, Rios’ artistry for angles and direction was on a par with such tennis geniuses as Rod Laver, John McEnroe, and Roger Federer. Over the course of 1998, he’d win seven singles titles, including the “Sunshine Double” of Indian Wells and Miami. By the end of March, Rios would be ranked number one in the world.
Prior to this match, Rios and Korda had each beaten one another three times. Amazingly, one of them had come a year earlier in the first round of the Australian Open, Rios winning in straight sets.
But on this Melbourne afternoon, Korda was thoroughly in control, one shot after another hit hard and deep. Maybe it helped that to prepare for the match, he’d hit earlier that day with one of Rios’ stylistic ancestors, McEnroe. It took only 53 minutes for Korda to sprint through the first two sets, 6-2, 6-2. The third was similar. With Rios serving at 2-5, 15-30, Korda laced an untouchable down the line forehand return. A fine serve saved one championship point, but at 30-40, Rios was passed by a crosscourt forehand. Falling to his knees, Korda rose up and performed a celebratory cartwheel. He’d become the oldest Grand Slam singles winner since Andres Gomez had won Roland Garros in 1990. ''It's been the ride of my life, and I'm happy I went to the last stop,” said Korda. “I feel I'm on top of the world at the moment.''
The influence of Petr on his son is apparent in the relaxed, smooth way Sebastian navigates his way around the court and subsequently addresses the ball. It no doubt helps that his mother, Regina Rajchrtova, was also a world class player. Little is rushed with the Korda technique, a tribute to a certain kind of body awareness, balance, and posture.“I’m like a little bit of a righty version of him,” Sebastian said about Petr in a New York Times article written after he won the Australian Open junior title five years ago. “We definitely have a lot of similarities. We both take the ball early. We’re both aggressive. I try to model my game after him.”
While Korda’s 1998 Australian Open win was a late career surprise, the opposite held for Martina Hingis. Just 17 years old, her 1997 had been glorious, Hingis winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open, as well as nine other WTA singles titles.
The Hingis game was a connoisseur’s delight, an advanced form of tennis chess, propelled by a strategic mind honed through hour after hour of practice matches versus all kinds of playing styles. “I wasn’t that big,” Hingis told me once, “so I had to figure things out, whether I was playing an adult with funny strokes, or another junior. It was like a problem, something to solve.”
Able to rapidly detect weaknesses, spot the viable nooks and crannies of the court, and then deploy her own arsenal, Hingis was a subtle yet forceful disruptor, helping one opponent after another become an accomplice in her own demise. It’s one thing to be swiftly overpowered, the way Korda had beaten Rios. It’s arguably even more painful to be unraveled, strand by strand. Such was the genius of Hingis.
A major factor in the Hingis skill set was her devotion to doubles – and the excellent way she played it. At 15, paired with Helena Sukova, she won the ’96 Wimbledon doubles title. Remarkably, more than 20 years later, Hingis took both the women’s and mixed titles at the ’17 US Open.
Seeded first at the ’98 Australian Open, Hingis had a tough third round match versus Anna Kournikova, a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 battle that’s a reminder of how well Kournikova could play singles. Not until the semis did Hingis lose another set. That came versus hard-hitting Anke Huber, Hingis the victor by the rare score of 6-1, 2-6, 6-1.
The second seed in Melbourne that year was Lindsay Davenport. But after getting past Venus Wiliams 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the quarterfinals, Davenport was upset in the semis by the eighth seed, ’94 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez. Armed with her own mix of severe topspin and biting slice, Martinez had beaten Hingis the first two times they’d played, those wins coming on clay in the finals of Hamburg ’95 and Rome the next year. But by ’97, Hingis had begun to solve Martinez, beating her at hardcourt tournaments in San Diego and Stanford.
Martinez started well, breaking Hingis’ serve in the opening game. But then she dropped her own delivery at love and never subsequently gained much traction. Though the rallies were often arduous during this 86-minute match, court positioning revealed much. While Martinez required room for her long swings and was often stationed several feet behind the baseline, Hingis’ much more compact backswings made it possible to dictate the tempo from just on the baseline or inside it.
On championship point, a Martinez down-the-line backhand went wide. Hingis had won, 6-3, 6-3, a victory that made her the youngest player in the Open era to successfully defend a Grand Slam singles title. ''Let me tell you one thing,” said Hingis, “to defend the title is much harder than to come in and win it the first time; there's so much pressure.”
Hingis also won the women’s doubles, all part of a glorious run that would see her take the singles and doubles titles in ’97, ’98, and ’99.
Bencic met Hingis when she was coached by Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor. Martina has also spent much time with Bencic. When it comes to playing style, Bencic is not as versatile, opportunistic, or fast as Hingis. But, as Hingis has admitted, she’s able to hit the ball harder. Like Hingis, Bencic’s technique is exceptionally concise, paired with efficient footwork and movement patterns that frequently take time away from opponents – and, like Hingis, in a nuanced way. At first, this rushed quality is hardly detectable. Over time, though, Bencic applies her own brand of cumulative pressure.
Sebastian Korda and Belinda Bencic have each started ’23 well. In Adelaide, Korda reached the finals, holding a championship point on Novak Djokovic before losing, 6-4 in the third. Also in Adelaide, Bencic won her seventh career singles title, along the way beating fourth-ranked Caroline Garcia in three sets and, in the finals, world No. 8 Daria Kasatkina, 6-0, 6-2. So while the past offers one set of useful memories, these two also figure to draw even more on what’s happened most recently.