Aussies call their island nation Oz, and we all know that
teenage girls arrive in Oz by tornado. In the case of Australian
Open champion Martina Hingis, the twister conveying her touched
down and kept on twisting.
For two weeks Hingis capered around Melbourne, and nothing could
subdue her--not heat, brushfire or the pestilence of first-week
upsets that felled six of the top seven women's seeds. The
16-year-old fourth seed from Switzerland went in-line skating
along the banks of the Yarra River and in the parking lot behind
the National Tennis Centre. She dropped some of her new wealth
in the city's boutiques. She went riding and fell unharmed from
her horse, a mare named (of course) Magic Girl.
At 6:45 p.m. last Thursday, Hingis was still on court with
Natasha Zvereva, finishing off Gigi Fernandez and Arantxa
Sanchez Vicario, the world's No. 1 doubles team, in the
semifinals. Over the next 70 minutes Hingis took a shower, got a
massage and grabbed a bite at her hotel. As she and Melanie
Molitor--her mother, coach and roommate--sprinted the block to
the Regent Theatre to catch the 8 p.m. curtain of Sunset
Boulevard, a photographer in pursuit tripped, fell and wound up
with a mouthful of Melbourne macadam.
If all this makes it seem that tennis was incidental to Hingis,
it was. She didn't so much win her first Grand Slam singles
title as toss it off. She never dropped a set in the fortnight,
and she needed only 59 minutes to be done with Mary Pierce in
the final last Saturday, 6-2, 6-2, to become the youngest female
winner at a major since 1887, when 15-year-old Charlotte
(Lottie) Dod won Wimbledon.
February 3, 1997
Lottie Dod, lah-dee-dah. "It's just another record for me,"
Hingis said after being asked if the achievement meant anything
to her. "I mean, I have so many records already."
When Hingis and her mother arrived in Australia for the Sydney
International right after New Year's, Molitor didn't believe
Hingis was in condition to win a Grand Slam tournament. They had
spent Christmas with Molitor's mother in Roznov, in the Czech
Republic, where temperatures were in the single digits and
Hingis had little chance to train. "I'm ready," Hingis insisted
after she won in Sydney.
"Then show me," Molitor reportedly said.
Matter-of-fact exchanges like that are commonplace between this
mother and daughter. At the Lipton Championships in Key
Biscayne, Fla., last March, after Hingis lost her second-round
match to a player with a triple-digit ranking, Nana Miyagi of
Japan, Molitor told Hingis she wasn't working hard enough.
Hingis responded by saying she found practice boring.
"It's either tennis or school," her mother told her. "Choose now."
The difference between Molitor and the proverbial Tennis Parent
from Hell is that she gives her daughter choices. Hingis and her
mother are determined to avoid the troubles of two other players
with omnipresent parents, Pierce and Jennifer Capriati. Pierce's
career was sidetracked by an abusive relationship with her coach
and father, and Capriati's by a lack of motivation and a drug
arrest. "We're not going to make the same mistakes," Hingis
says. "In every family there are sometimes problems. Especially
because she's my coach and my mother, sometimes I'm against what
she wants me to do. But right now we have a great relationship."
They're both sensitive to suggestions that Molitor might be
stealing her daughter's childhood. "Traveling is an even better
education than sitting eight hours a day in class," Hingis says.
"I'm learning all the cultures, all the different nationalities
and mentalities. When I first came here, I didn't know that
Canberra is the capital city."
Unlike some prodigies who came before her, Hingis has never been
incarcerated in a sun-baked Florida tennis gulag. At her home in
Trubbach, in German-speaking eastern Switzerland, she has a
court made of the same Rebound Ace composition surface on which
the Australian Open is played, but she says she never practices
more than two hours a day and doesn't lift weights. She fills
much of her time with mountain biking, soccer, skiing, aerobics,
in-line skating, riding (she has two horses, Montana and
Sorrenta) and walks through the woods with her German shepherd,
Zorro. The only hint of the lash is that Molitor coaches Hingis
in their native Czech tongue because, Molitor says, "I can't
swear as quickly in German."
If comparisons with other phenoms are inevitable, Molitor
prefers to invoke Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, the former
teen stars who had successful if injury-truncated careers.
"Austin and Jaeger are happy people today, and someone should
point that out," Molitor says. "Tennis is just a short stage of
your life, and it can be good preparation for the rest of it. I
want it to help Martina become independent and self-analytical
until someday she finds a partner. And I don't mean a doubles
When Hingis made her pro debut at 14, she had the look of a
Chris Evert-style baseliner. Now, with more sting in her serve
and a knack for knowing when to go to the net, she's beginning
to hint at the all-court skills of the woman she was named
after, Martina Navratilova.
Hingis's smile is part of the package, and it's not easily
suppressed. Against Pierce she put away a short ball with a
topspin forehand and grinned. After match point she embraced her
mother, still grinning. "If we could play so well, we'd all be
smiling, too," Molitor said afterward.
Hingis even smiles when no other player would dare to--after a
net-cord winner, when the player striking the shot often raises
a hand in ritual apology, the most insincere gesture in tennis.
Hingis was the beneficiary of just such a net cord to go up 3-0
on Pierce in the first set, and though she raised her hand
obligatorily, she grinned. That's because there's no
disingenuousness to her yet, and at times a little would serve
her well. Her title vaulted her to No. 2 in the world, and--this
will not go unnoticed by current No. 1 Steffi Graf--Hingis says
only injury can keep her from taking the top ranking this year.
"Next time I have to play mixed doubles," she said in her
victory speech, after referring to the women's doubles title she
and Zvereva ended up winning, "but I have to give someone else a
chance to win an event."
She will become more politic, more mature. For now a wheezy
giggle encroaches on the back half of every second or third
sentence she utters. She has likened one opponent, Amanda
Coetzer, to Speedy Gonzales. And while most players on the tour
prefer clingy aerobic wear, Hingis's taste runs toward classic
"I showed you," Hingis told her mother in the locker room right
after the final.
"Yes," Molitor replied, "and I can't say I'm unhappy about it."
As well-positioned as Hingis seems to be to survive adolescence,
on the eve of the final The Independent of London published a
disquieting interview with her father, Karol Hingis. He
described himself as an unemployed tennis coach who earns $166 a
month as a maintenance man at a club in the Slovak city of
Kosice, where Martina was born. He said that since he and
Molitor split, when Martina was six--mother and daughter moved
to Switzerland a year later--he has only occasionally seen his
daughter and hasn't shared in her riches. "It is a dream of mine
to be able to train Martina one day," Karol told The
Independent. "I know that Melanie doesn't want that. She thinks
that I have a bad influence on Martinka."
While women's tennis seems unable to produce a teen champion
without some attendant melodrama, Pete Sampras, who defeated
Carlos Moya of Spain 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 in the men's final on Sunday,
has calmly plowed to nine major titles since winning the 1990
U.S. Open at age 19. Sampras's toughest match in Melbourne came
against Dominik Hrbaty, a Slovak-born 19-year-old who made the
25-year-old No. 1 seem like a geezer twice over: First, Hrbaty
revealed that three years ago he had asked Sampras for an
autograph; then he pushed Sampras to an exhausting fifth set in
their fourth-round match. "I could have easily been watching the
Super Bowl back in the States," Sampras would say.
That he wasn't can be credited to Sampras's professionalism.
Unlike a number of other pros, he didn't bitch endlessly about
the heat or dwell on his opinion that the balls were
suspiciously soft, even though soft balls would handicap his
booming game. When Australia's Mark Woodforde finally held serve
after dropping 13 straight games during his third-round match
with Sampras, Woodforde bowed self-mockingly to the home crowd,
but Sampras was the anti-Hingis, not permitting himself even a
smile. Facing Hrbaty on the hottest day of the tournament, he
shortened the rallies, husbanding his energy by going for aces
and winners. "Pete has a lot of gears he can go to," says his
coach, Paul Annacone. "And he has an innate ability to know
which one to use."
Sampras unfurled the shot of the tournament in his straight-set
semifinal defeat of Thomas Muster: an ankle-high backhand winner
from out of court, around the post and past the ball boy, which
evoked an I-am-not-worthy salaam from an opponent usually known
for his Schwarzeneggerian swagger. Only Sampras could have made
the Musterminator look as if he had stepped out of Wayne's
World, and only Sampras, who subsists on a regimen of cable,
movies and room service during Grand Slams, could ask impishly,
"Did it make 'Play of the Day'?"
With his triumph in Melbourne he has won more than $26 million
in tournament prize money. Hingis has won only about $2.1
million, but she made her first million sooner than any player
of either gender. It's odd to hear a Swiss citizen marvel at how
a bank account works, but after Hingis announced on Jan. 14 that
she had signed an incentive-sweetened deal with sportswear
manufacturer Sergio Tacchini that could be worth as much as $10
million, she rhapsodized about the concept of liquid assets.
"You can get this money out!" she said, revealing that she had
bought her mother a ring. Hingis particularly likes to spend
money, she added, "on big cities."
She probably meant in big cities, even if she was about to put a
down payment on Melbourne. But during this still-young year she
has done right by the prepositions that mattered: Down and
Under, and up and atop.