They call her little Martina. She has a racket bag full of tournament victories and is represented by the powerful International Management Group. She is, for better or worse, the future of tennis. She is 12 years old.
While 36-year-old Martina Navratilova was reaching the Wimbledon semifinals last week, her 12-year-old namesake, Martina Hingis, was making similar progress through the Wimbledon junior tournament. Playing on grass for the first time, Hingis reached the semis in the 18-and-under division.
Martina, tennis's latest child prodigy, wields her racket with the force and pace of an adult and regularly mows down players five and six years older than she. At Wimbledon she was finally stopped by 17-year-old Rita Grande of Italy 6-2, 7-6, A month earlier Hingis had become the youngest winner of the French Open junior title, surpassing Jennifer Capriati, who won at Roland Garros at 13 in 1989.
Martina is a sprightly all-court player with a two-handed backhand, a laser forehand and tennis in her genes. She was born in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, but her parents divorced when she was six, and she moved to Switzerland the following year with her mother and coach, Melanie Hingis-Zogg, who married a Swiss businessman. (Melanie, a top-25 Czech player in the 1970s, named her daughter after Navratilova.) They live in the village of Trübbach, near the Swiss border with Liechtenstein.
Although Martina has no endorsement contracts yet, Sergio Tacchini has outfitted her since she was eight, and another company, V‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√álkl, provides her with free rackets. Her family also drives an Opel, courtesy of the carmaker. Paid endorsements seem likely soon, now that she has a five-year deal with IMG.
But there are some who view Martina's rapid advancement with more alarm than pleasure, and one of them is Navratilova, who is not particularly happy with her namesake's rapid progress. In fact, she is downright disapproving. Navratilova has not yet seen Little Martina play because she doesn't believe that her namesake should be playing at the world-class level this soon. "It's just too bloody early," Navratilova said at Wimbledon. She went on to cite numerous examples of immature tennis players and gymnasts who have broken down under the pressures to perform. "I wouldn't put my 12-year-old child through it," Navratilova said. "This is an adult world, and at 12 years old it's damn difficult to handle. It's too soon. It's too much pressure."
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Navratilova is right. Capriati was granted special permission to turn pro just before her 14th birthday. She was then forced to go through a painful adolescence in the glare of the public spotlight. Now, at 17, Capriati acknowledges that she may have started too early. Tracy Austin was nine when she won her first junior title. She went on to win two U.S. Open championships as a teenager, but by 20 she was effectively finished after suffering a succession of injuries. Andrea Jaeger reached the Wimbledon final in 1983 at 18 but was off the circuit the following year, ailing both physically and emotionally.
So far Martina Hingis seems to live a relatively normal existence. She doesn't practice more than two hours a day and is an avid horseback rider and skier and a straight-A student. And she certainly has a mind of her own. Asked about Navratilova's comments, she said on German television, "I don't judge her, why should she judge me? I don't think she's too old to play. Why should she say I'm too young?"