If she were older, of course, Martina Hingis would have paused
for a moment last Saturday and tried to capture it all. She
would have stood in the stadium at Key Biscayne after destroying
her former idol, and she would have taken in the nectar-sweet
Florida air, the blue sky and the cheering of 12,164 people who
knew they had just witnessed a bit of history, a rare confluence
of youth, genius and achievement. If she were older, Hingis
would have known that memories of days like this can later ease
days that aren't. But she is 16, and the wonderful thing about
being 16 is that you can play flawless tennis and thrash the
great Monica Seles 6-2, 6-1 in the Lipton Championships final
without having to stop and savor it. You blast a backhand winner
that freezes Seles at match point and skip to the net with a
half-moon grin and take the trophy and rush off, because at 16
you have no doubt that tomorrow and every day after it will feel
just like this.
"Why should I be worried about the future?" Hingis said
afterward. "Right now, almost everything is perfect." Hingis,
who was certain to become No. 1 on the Women's Tennis
Association computer regardless of how she performed in the
Lipton, roared through the tournament the same way she has
roared through 1997--undefeated and virtually unchallenged. She
handled all comers so creatively that they didn't just lose;
they were awed. "She's different," said ninth-ranked Irina
Spirlea, who lost to Hingis during the latter's march to the '97
Australian Open title. "She was born to play tennis. You cannot
work at this. Even if you work at it, you cannot have it like
she has it."
Hingis is frolicking through the oft-nightmarish world of the
women's tour like, well, a kid cutting loose. "I have never
enjoyed tennis as much as I do now," she said daily at the
Lipton, and she proved it by grinning her way through a full
slate of singles and doubles matches--she made it to the women's
doubles semifinals--interviews and photo sessions, laughing off
the idea of feeling pressure and never ducking behind
little-girl modesty. After she took apart much-hyped phenom
Venus Williams in straight sets in the third round, a tennis
official handed Hingis one of the colored beads that had fallen
from Williams's braids and said she should tell people it was a
souvenir. Hingis scoffed, "I'll say something better than that."
She walked into her press conference, flung the bead into the
crowd like a brave tossing a fresh scalp and said with a giggle,
"I have a nice present for you. One of Venus's pearls."
Another day, asked if she felt unbeatable, Hingis said, "Well, I
Arrogant? Sure. Exhausted? "What does it mean--exhausted?"
"Me?" she said.
Is it any wonder that the beleaguered powers of women's tennis
look upon Hingis as a savior? For most of the '90s, the women's
game has been rocked by one melodramatic episode after another,
with Jennifer Capriati (drugs), Mary Pierce (abusive father),
Steffi Graf (tax-dodging dad) and Seles (stabbed by a deranged
Graf fan) grouped together like some doleful Mount Rushmore, a
monument to one sport's lost generation. Two years ago the WTA,
in an effort to reduce the pressure on adolescent players,
declared that girls had to be 18 to play the tour full time but
conveniently grandfathered in Hingis, then 14 years old. Hingis,
a Czech-born Swiss citizen who has been playing since she was
two, was and is driven to succeed by her flinty mother, Melanie
Molitor, who dismisses burnout as an American creation. Asked
Saturday if she was at all apprehensive about her daughter's
taking over the No. 1 spot so young, Molitor said, "Why should I
be? It's what we wanted."
And if Hingis's career was to end right now, you could argue
that Molitor and the WTA were right to let her join the tour at
14. So far, Hingis has shown she can handle the rigors of
constant travel and the boredom of hotel life. She doesn't take
herself or her career too seriously; she rides horses without a
helmet, in-line skates without pads. Before one of her matches
at the Lipton, while rain poured onto a slippery practice court,
Hingis ran full-bore after balls. She wears the mantle of
stardom lightly. In fact, she might remind you of the woman she
displaced Monday as the youngest No. 1 in history. When Seles
reached the top at age 17, she too was vivacious and happy, a
giggling Madonna fan with killer strokes and a champion's will.
"She was just great at that time," said Hingis, who at nine saw
Seles play at a tournament in Zurich. "She just looked
different. She had this hair, blonde; then she cut it. I liked
her personality a lot, yes."
But on Saturday, Hingis happened upon a different Seles: a
player with ragged concentration and a game in disrepair. Seles,
23, is far more thoughtful than she was six years ago. She
seldom giggles. Partly this is because she spent the last four
months away from tennis, recovering from a muscle tear in her
left shoulder and from a broken right ring finger, the latter
courtesy of a practice serve by Hingis before an exhibition in
Geneva on Dec. 2, Seles's birthday. "Great birthday present I
got," Seles says about the injury, and, yes, she sounds resigned
to her bad luck. Who can blame her? Shortly thereafter, her
Yorkshire terrier, Astro, died. And in February, Seles received
news from Germany that her final appeal of the suspended
sentence given to Gunther Parche, the man who stabbed her at a
tournament in Hamburg in 1993, had been denied, and he will
Seles decided to spend New Year's Eve with friends in the
Caribbean--a way to start fresh. As she puts it, "I was
thinking, O.K., 1997, new year. Better things." Just after
midnight, she called her mother and father at their home in
Sarasota, Fla. No one answered. She called her brother, Zoltan,
and wished him a happy New Year. "I don't know if I should tell
you this," Zoltan said. Their father, Karolj, who had twice
battled cancer, in his stomach and prostate, had collapsed at
home and was in the hospital. Cancer again. "Now it's back in
his stomach," Monica says. "And it's metastasized."
Karolj was Monica's coach, but unlike many tennis fathers, he
never pushed his daughter further than she wanted to be pushed.
He backed away from reflected glory. After her stabbing, he kept
urging Monica to enjoy tennis as a game, nothing more. The
Lipton, her first full tournament since her career-worst
loss--6-2, 6-0 to Hingis in Oakland in November--was also the
first tournament she'd ever played without her dad in
attendance. Monica decided to play a full schedule this year
because she senses that Karolj's spirits lift when she and he
talk tennis. "The hardest thing is not being there with him,"
she says. "Because of the time: Who knows how much time he has?
I'm not going to see him much this year, and that's something
I'm struggling with. I'm not a baby anymore. I've got to realize
that I've got to take care of my dad, I've got to be there for
him. Anytime you see your parent suffer, and it drags on and on,
it's hard. It makes you think about your own death."
Seles has a hitting partner, but she runs her practices now. At
the hotel in Key Biscayne, at the stadium before matches--in
fact, everywhere during the Lipton--she felt lonely. Even as he
endures chemotherapy at home, Karolj faxes Monica advice. When
he was in the hospital in January, he wrote her thick sheaves of
instructions on how to handle her career one, five, 10 years
from now. During the Lipton she called home twice daily, before
and after each match, but the new tone of the conversations took
some adjusting to. In the past, Karolj had always spoken to
Monica about the parts of her game that weren't working, the
things she could improve on. "Now," Monica said, "he just says,
On Saturday in the stadium, Seles wasn't. Yes, she had had
moments at Key Biscayne when her game seemed to take shape, but
they occurred against opponents such as Barbara Paulus and Asa
Carlsson. Twice Seles was pressed to three sets in matches that
once would have been automatic wins. "I can't have the focus I
had four or five years ago," she said. Against Hingis, she had
none. Her first serve was gone, her ground strokes mere ghosts
of what they once were. The match took 44 minutes. Hingis played
superbly, nailing an astonishing 74% of her first serves. She
broke Seles six times and made only eight unforced errors.
"She just seems to be having a great time," Seles said. "She
told me this is the best time of her life."
Afterward Hingis spoke about her tennis and about being No. 1,
but soon that grew old, and she spoke of teenagers' subjects:
Her mother ("She only wants the best for me"). Dating
("Traveling so much, it's hard to find somebody at the
tournament; you would have to go every week with someone else").
Being underage ("I still can't drive the car; I still can't go
out"). Money--she has made more than $1 million on the court
already this year ("Wow, the money is rolling, rolling"). Then
her eyes danced, and she laughed, and everyone laughed with her.
Everything was perfect.