40 LOVE History: Five Set Finals

The final of the WTA Championships was a best-of-five format 16 times, but it only went to a fifth set three times - which three years were they? Who won those finals, and who did it twice?

Published October 18, 2013 12:05

40 LOVE History: Five Set Finals
Martina Hingis, Steffi Graf

NEW YORK, NY, USA - Sixteen straight editions of the WTA Championships between 1984 and 1998 saw the final go with a best-of-five format - but only three times did the final actually go the distance...

1990 - Monica Seles Vs Gabriela Sabatini: The Comeback

In a match-up between two of that year's breakthrough stars - Seles won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open, Sabatini the same at the US Open - history was made, as the very first five set final in WTA Championships history took place. And it was nothing short of a battle, with Seles the early leader, winning the first set and building a 64 31 lead - she even served for the second set at 64 54.

It was far from over - Sabatini snuck out that second set, 7-5, and took the third set as well, 6-3. But Seles wasn't finished - she had come from behind earlier in the week, and she would do it again.

"I'm never out of the match until the last point is hit," the 16-year-old Seles said before the match.

"I can pull a lot of matches out that I think a lot of players wouldn't even be trying to do."

Seles broke early in the fourth set and never looked back - she drilled one last crosscourt backhand into the corner for a winner to shut the door on a three-hour, 47-minute, 64 57 36 64 62 victory.

"Monica played unbelievable tennis," Sabatini said. "I am very much looking forward to next year."

1995 - Steffi Graf Vs Anke Huber: An All-German Grinder

Graf being in the final was pretty much a given - with the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open in her pocket that year, she stormed through to the final of the WTA Championships without dropping a set.

Huber was the surprise package. With upsets against No.4 seed Mary Pierce and No.6 seed Kimiko Date, then a semifinal victory over fellow unseeded player Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, the German No.2 was now standing across the net from the German No.1, and the dominant World No.1, a woman whose shadow she was constantly trying to emerge out of - and she very nearly did that day.

Early goings weren't easy goings for Huber - she fell behind 4-0 in 10 minutes and lost the first set, 6-1. She said later she was so nervous that "I didn't even know how to hold my racquet in the first set."

But once that was out of the way it became a match, Huber matching Graf's legendary game with some big serves and huge groundstrokes of her own, and it went all the way to a fifth set. But in one game it all turned - Graf broke at 4-3 in the fifth then served it out at love to close it out, 61 26 61 46 63.

1996 - Steffi Graf Vs Martina Hingis: The Generational Clash

Again Graf was an established, dominant World No.1 going in - for the second straight year she had the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open in her pocket, and though she had some tricky moments against Lindsay Davenport and Jana Novotna in the quarters and semis, she made it into the final.

Meanwhile, Hingis - whose breakthrough semifinal run at the US Open and fantastic fall season brought her the No.7 seed at the season finale - was largely untroubled all week, dropping one set to Iva Majoli in the semis but cruising apart from that, her scorelines reading 62 61, 61 62 and 62 46 61.

This one went the distance, with both players itching to dictate the points - Graf with her huge serve and forehand, Hingis with her pinpoint down-the-lines and direction changes - it was a marvelous contrast and the Madison Square Garden crowd was loving every minute - 15,256 fans, 169 minutes.

As Hingis was on her way to winning the fourth set, cramps started to set in - she managed to squeak it out and take the match to a fifth, but Graf was relentless, unforgiving and too demanding for that - the established World No.1 rolled in the fifth set to close out the future World No.1, 63 46 60 46 60.

"Martina has had an incredible year," Graf said of Hingis after the match. "But I don't know who felt 16 and who felt 27 on the court today. To play this final is an incredible achievement for her at 16.

"People talk about the young players and as fast as she's going, she's the one to look out for."

Anke Huber

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