Proceed With Caution

Martina Hingis turned pro and another 14-year-old, Venus Williams, is about to, though almost everyone agrees they're too young
October 16, 1994

There are no more fairy tales in women's tennis, only cautionary tales. And although Martina Hingis is a fresh-faced child from an Alpine village in Switzerland, her story isn't Heidi, and her professional debut didn't occur once upon a time but on Oct. 4, just four days after her 14th birthday.

Hingis is a mere ribbon of a girl who still wears braces. In the players' lounge at the Saalsporthalle in Zurich, she passed the time before her grand entrance at the European Indoors championships by flipping through magazines. Nearby, the woman she was named after, 37-year-old Martina Navratilova, propped her feet on a coffee table and read The Infinite Plan, a novel by Isabel Allende. Hingis is just six months older than the toy fox terrier who accompanies Navratilova on the road.

As 170 members of the international media looked on, Hingis then took the court for her match with Patty Fendick, a 29-year-old American. Conspicuously absent was Navratilova, who remained in the lounge eating dinner and made it clear she does not approve of Hingis's decision to turn pro so young. "I don't," Navratilova said. "But who am I?"

Debuts are for 18-year-old socialites, not 14-year-old kids. Hingis probably should have been riding her horse, Shubidu, or listening to Mariah Carey on her headphones, or admiring the poster of Baywatch's David Hasselhof that hangs on her bedroom wall in Trübbach, a village in northeast Switzerland.

The fact is, almost nobody thinks anymore that it is a very good idea for 14-year-olds to turn pro, one exception being International Management Group (IMG), the agency that signed Hingis to a five-year contract 18 months ago and has already obtained endorsement contracts for her with Yonex rackets, Sergio Tacchini clothing and Opel cars, which she is, of course, not old enough to drive. Hingis's mother, Melanie, a 37-year-old former top Czech player, was also in favor of the move, having groomed her daughter for a pro career ever since she named the child after countrywoman Navratilova. "We've worked 10 years for this," Melanie said. "It's a natural development."

There is no question that the younger Hingis, the junior French Open and Wimbledon champion, has the talent to play professionally—witness her 6-4, 6-3 defeat of the 45th-ranked Fendick. Hingis blithely said of the victory, "I'm not that surprised. I've beaten better players." She followed that performance with a 6-4, 6-0 loss to No. 5 Mary Pierce, a setback that was more respectable than it sounds.

Even in losing, Hingis demonstrated elegant ground strokes, a champion's two-handed backhand, a sound grasp of strategy and a composure far beyond her years. Just how good is Hingis? "Top 30," ventured Phil de Picciotto, No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf's agent. "But that doesn't mean I think she should rush to attain the ranking."

Ironically, Zurich was scheduled to be the site of the comeback of another young woman who once was in a rush to get to the top: Jennifer Capriati, who four years ago—when she was not yet 14—reached the final in her first pro tournament. But after a struggle with burnout and a stay in a Miami drug-rehab clinic, Capriati is still attempting to earn her high school equivalency diploma and contemplating whether to relaunch her career, which has been dormant since the 1993 U.S. Open. Last month she signed up for the Zurich tournament and another in Filderstadt. Germany, then withdrew from both, citing a groin injury suffered in practice. She has yet to announce further plans.

Capriati's troubled history doesn't worry Hingis. "She's just one person," Hingis says dismissively. "There are a thousand girls in the rankings."

And at least one more 14-year-old on the horizon. The day before Hingis's match with Fendick, Venus Williams of Pompano Beach, Fla.—whose father, Richard, had repeatedly vowed she would not become another underage pro—announced that she would become just that by playing in a tour event in Oakland on Oct. 31. Williams was given a wild-card entry by the tournament organizer, which is (surprise!) IMG. "I'm completely against it," her father said of the move. "I think it's insane." But he claims to be powerless to control Venus, who, he said, "makes her own decisions." How soon before she signs with an agent and launches herself on a full pro schedule? There were no predictions from Richard on that. "I've already made a fool out of myself once," he said.

As has, some would suggest, the sport. In September, reacting to the cases not only of Capriati but also of such earlier prodigies turned flameouts as Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, the Women's Tennis Association announced new age restrictions beginning in 1995: Fourteen-year-olds will be barred from regular tour events, while players aged 15 to 17 will be phased in to top-flight competition. By turning pro now, Hingis and Williams are free of all such restrictions. By letting them turn pro now, the WTA, not incidentally, has presumably eliminated the possibility of lawsuits by either woman.

Women's Tennis Association chief executive officer Anne Person Worcester says that no one in her organization was entirely happy to see Hingis and Williams turn pro and promises to offer career and psychological counseling and medical monitoring to younger players, including Hingis and Williams. "I understand how crucial it is to approach their debuts in a comprehensive and cautious manner," Worcester says. "I think we learned a lot from the Austins and Jaegers and Capriatis. I believe we are significantly better equipped to promote career longevity."

Fortunately, if any 14-year-old seems capable of dealing with the white-hot glare of the spotlight and the relentless pressure of a pro career, it is Hingis. She was almost impertinently comfortable with the other players in Zurich. She was also at ease with, if not delighted by, the battery of cameras and microphones on hand for her debut, perhaps because she has aspirations toward modeling. "Emotionally, she is very mature," says her agent, Damir Keretic of IMG.

Behind many an ambitious child is a driven parent, and in this case it's Melanie, who grew up a short distance from Ivan Lendl in the eastern part of what was formerly Czechoslovakia and who had a nodding acquaintance with Navratilova. Hingis's father, Karoli, is an administrator at a tennis club in the Czech Republic.

Martina, who grew up in Roznov, first displayed her athletic ability by taking to skiing when she was three, which was also about the time Melanie put a sawed-off racket in her hand. Martina began entering tournaments at age five. Her parents divorced when she was six, and Melanie moved to Trübbach after marrying Andreas Zogg, a Swiss computer specialist. They live in an apartment complex surrounded by postcard-perfect views of the Alps and pastures dotted with grazing cows.

Martina and Melanie maintain they are approaching Martina's career cautiously. "Everything is very simple, very basic," Melanie says. How can she protect her daughter from the danger of burnout? "By being flexible," she says. "We have no big plans." Hingis practices two hours a day and works only a few minutes on her serve, to protect her shoulder from injury.

Martina, who would be an aspiring equestrienne were it not for tennis, says she spends nearly as much time riding her horse and learning to show-jump as she does on the court. Her riding is encouraged by Melanie, who has an almost holistic approach to coaching that includes stretching sessions that look more like dance routines. She encourages her daughter to ski and swim and to draw lessons from those sports that she can use in tennis, and the result is a player of fluid, instinctive beauty. "I play what I feel," Martina says. "I respond to the ball."

But a tennis career is clearly Hingis's priority now, and there are already signs that her childhood will come second to it. Two months ago she switched from the local public school to a private school that specializes in educating aspiring athletes—particularly skiers—and allows them generous amounts of time off for world travel. Hingis is said to get excellent grades, but she admits that her math has slipped due to her absences from class. It could slip more, because Keretic has said that Hingis may play as many as a dozen events in 1995, including the Australian Open in January, which would be her first pro Grand Slam tournament appearance.

So the latest child prodigy has arrived. There is nothing to be done about it but admire Hingis's immense talent and hope that this story, against the odds, has a happy ending.

PHOTOBOB MARTINThe confident Hingis pronounced herself unsurprised after whipping Fendick in her debut. PHOTOCARYN LEVYWilliams's coming out is set for Oct. 31, but her father's verdict is already in: "I think it's insane."
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)