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WTA Finals Rewind: Steffi Graf holds off Martina Hingis in five sets in 1996 final
“As fast as she’s going, she’s definitely the one to look out for, no question,” Graf said after her 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, 4-6, 6-0 triumph over the 16-year-old future No. 1.
Published Oct 25, 2022
This week we’ll be looking back at five of the most unforgettable moments in the history of the WTA Finals, with the 2022 edition of the season-ending championships taking place in Fort Worth, Texas next week.
Yesterday we started with Monica Seles’ five-set win over Gabriela Sabatini in the 1990 final, and today it’s another marathon final between two all-time greats:
Graf holds off 16-year-old Hingis in five sets in 1996 final
There was definitely an experience gap between the last two players standing at the 1996 WTA Finals. Steffi Graf, co-ranked No. 1 with Monica Seles at the time, had 101 career WTA titles to her name, including 21 majors—meanwhile, 16-year-old Martina Hingis had just broken the Top 10 six weeks earlier and had picked up the first two WTA titles of her career in that span, in Stuttgart and Oakland.
But Hingis had played Graf a few times before, even beating her once in Rome earlier that year, and this one went the distance, with both players battling physical problems—Graf a knee injury, Hingis cramping—before the German eventually prevailed after five grueling sets, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, 4-6, 6-0.
It was Graf’s second straight year sweeping the last three majors of the year—Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open—as well as the WTA Finals.
“I mean, in a way I’m glad it’s done, and in another way in terms of what I’ve done in tennis this year, again, I think I topped off last year’s,” Graf said afterwards. “Even though I’ve had pretty much the same results as last year, it was so much more difficult physically to do it. And in that perspective, I really outdid myself again.”
Hingis started cramping while she was up in the fourth set—she managed to close that set out, but was completely outclassed by Graf in the fifth.
“Somehow I just wanted to cry because you make a fifth set against Steffi and then you’re not really able to force her anymore, because you don’t have any power in yourself,” she said. “She played a great match. She had a great tournament. As I said at the ceremony, whenever she plays, she wins the tournament. She’s a big player and she can handle it better than I do.”
But while Graf won this battle, it was a passing of the torch of sorts—while the German was hampered by injuries over the next few years, Hingis completely took over the tour, something Graf saw coming even after beating the Swiss that day.
“As fast as she’s going, she’s definitely the one to look out for, no question,” the German said. “The way she’s been playing, without being afraid, with the freshness, I definitely see her as the one.”
Hingis’ goals for 1997 were much humbler that day, too.
“I’m just going to try to play as I did the last couple of weeks,” she said. “I think if I’m going to play like this for the future, I will have a big chance to become higher and higher. And I would like to win a Grand Slam next year, probably, too.”
The Swiss won her first Grand Slam title two months later at the Australian Open, took over No. 1 two months after that, and eventually won three of the four majors that year—and made it four out of five including the 1998 Australian Open.