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The Seven-Year Itch Sidelined at the French Open for the first time since 1995, Martina Hingis has plenty of time to ponder this question: Does she want to work her way back to the top, or just play?

June 03, 2002
June 03, 2002

Table of Contents
June 3, 2002

The Seven-Year Itch Sidelined at the French Open for the first time since 1995, Martina Hingis has plenty of time to ponder this question: Does she want to work her way back to the top, or just play?

First, mother tried fooling herself. Mother recited the usual
excuses: Martina's just a kid, she'll grow out of it, give her
time. Melanie Molitor forced herself not to believe the worst,
because to do so would change everything. It was, after all, her
own stubborn will that had ignited this brilliant career. She
couldn't afford doubt. But before her daughter's composure
cracked in Paris in the spring of 1999, before the losses piled
up in London and New York City, and long before it became
obvious to the rest of the world that the great Martina Hingis
had gone wrong, Molitor knew--down at the bone--that she had a
problem on her hands.

This is an article from the June 3, 2002 issue Original Layout

Not the kind of problem solved by a surgeon's knife, or by time
off. How do you solve blood? How do you solve character? When,
in January, Hingis lost the final of the Australian Open to a
stronger, fitter Jennifer Capriati, everyone in tennis noted
that it had been three years since Hingis's last major title and
again declared the game too fast and the players too big for the
5'7", 130-pound Hingis to handle. She just can't hit with these
women is the usual line whenever Hingis plays someone like
Capriati, Lindsay Davenport or Venus or Serena Williams--even
though on that blistering Saturday afternoon in Melbourne, the
soft-serving Hingis had the No. 1 player in the world pinned to
the asphalt. That Hingis had deftly built a 6-4, 4-0 lead and
later had four match points was, of course, eclipsed by how
haplessly she lost the match, but the odd blend of dominance and
submission revealed a Hingis never seen before. She was far more
dangerous, and far weaker, than anyone had thought.

"I let it slip away," Hingis said, still mystified, three months
later. "I had it in my hands, and I didn't take it."

Mother wasn't surprised. Molitor had sacrificed plenty--her
homeland, her career, her men--to make her daughter a superb and
wealthy tennis player, but neither ambition nor maternal love
clouded her critical eye. She could read her daughter like a
billboard. Successful as the 21-year-old Hingis had been (five
Grand Slam singles titles, nine major doubles titles and 209
weeks as the women's world No. 1), Molitor kept waiting to see
what Chris Evert calls "the need." When Hingis's peers stalked
her and then took her down, Molitor waited for her daughter to
display a champion's drive, that hunger to adjust to her rivals
and beat them back. She never did.

Mother and daughter argued, separated, reunited, cried. All the
while Molitor rapped her knuckles against Hingis's cheery
surface in the hope of hearing something solid beneath. Instead,
all she heard were echoes: her own words repeated back to her;
the giggles of her daughter in yet another flirtation; the voice
of a husband left behind. Molitor can laugh at this now, joke
about her daughter's achieving so much without caring so much.
"She does only what she has to do to get by," Molitor said.
"She's not lazy, but she only works as long as it's fun and it's
not hurting."

Now, of course, Hingis isn't working at all. For the first time
since breaking onto the tour full time in 1995, she's not in
Paris for the French Open, and she won't be playing Wimbledon,
either. On May 20 Hingis underwent surgery in Zurich to replace
two ruptured ligaments in her left ankle--the first step in
resolving long-term ankle, knee and hip pain--but her future
remains murky. According to her surgeon, Heinz Buehlmann, the
tendon and bone in both of her heels are chronically inflamed, a
problem impossible to fix with surgery. "A very serious
inflammation," he says. "There's no way to cut it away."
Speculation about when she'll return to the tour has ranged from
six weeks to three months to never; Buehlmann says the pain
might force Hingis into retirement.

The Hingis camp has taken pains to downplay that assessment, but
it's clear that her body is breaking down. Last fall Hingis
missed two months after having surgery to reconstruct three
ligaments in her right ankle, and during last week's surgery
Buehlmann discovered a broken bone in her left foot. Once the
tour's most durable star, she is now its most fragile--in mind
as well as body.

"I'm going to try--that's what I owe myself, and I've done it
before," Hingis said last week. "But it crosses my mind: What
happens if it's not possible anymore, once I have to start
playing four, five hours a day? Are my legs still good enough to
compete? The doctor can't guarantee that."

Yet even before her layoff, Hingis's commitment had been
wavering. In late April, as she practiced for Paris, her ankle
hadn't yet become a critical issue, but her motivation was a
shambles. Winning another major? Getting back to No. 1?
"Sometimes I feel, Been there, done it, now what?" Hingis said.
"What more is there to prove?" Her career has hit the wall.
She's got the seven-year itch: still in her prime but no longer
sure why she's playing. "I'm 21," she added. "What else would I
do?"

Once, Martina Hingis was the smartest girl in the room. Her rise
was so smooth, her game so elegant and imaginative that she
seemed to have crossed over from a different tennis
dimension--some parallel universe where technology hasn't turned
rackets into rocket launchers, where all hands are soft, where
everyone's brain works overtime divining geometric
possibilities. Unlike Evert or Bjorn Borg, Hingis didn't spawn a
wave of imitators. No one tried to play like her. No one could.
"She's just a genius," says Billie Jean King.

"No one I've ever played has as good a court sense as Martina,"
says Monica Seles. "She anticipates a step before anyone else.
When we played doubles together, she would pick up balls I
didn't think she could get and place them. In the middle of the
point, she's thinking. It was amazing to play alongside her."

Everything came easily. At 12, Hingis was the youngest player to
win a junior Grand Slam title; at 13, the youngest Wimbledon
junior champ; at 14, the youngest woman to win a WTA Tour
singles match. At 16, having become the youngest player ever to
win $1 million, she won the 1997 Australian Open and became the
youngest holder of a Grand Slam title in a century. Within
months she was the youngest world No. 1 since the computer
rankings began in 1975. She also won the '97 Wimbledon and U.S.
Open, and only a fluke loss to Iva Majoli in the French Open
final stopped her from becoming the youngest player to win the
Grand Slam.

Still, Hingis's world conquest, unlike those of Steffi Graf and
Seles before her, felt less like an assault than a
pickpocketing: With impeccable timing and a dancer's balance--an
unlikely drop shot here, a backhand to wrong-foot her opponent
there--she left her victims bewildered. "Very artful and
whimsical," says tennis TV commentator Mary Carillo. "Not too
many people do whimsy anymore. It was a pleasure to watch her
find winners that no one else would even think of, to manipulate
the court and her opponent so well at such a young age. She was
far above everyone else. I thought she was going to be dug in
for a while."

And not just because of her tennis. Hingis--who emerged just
after Capriati's infamous burnout and drug bust and just before
the besieged WTA instituted its so-called Capriati rules, which
limited the number of tournaments that could be entered by
players under 18--seemed immune to the tour's relentless
pressure and tawdriness. While Seles struggled to come back from
being stabbed, Mary Pierce publicly broke with her abusive dad
and Graf was distressed by her father's imprisonment for tax
evasion, Hingis floated about in a cloud of refreshing
frivolity, prattling on about horses and in-line skating. After
beating Venus Williams at the '97 Lipton Championships in
Florida, she held up one of her victim's hair beads like a
trophy, then tossed it into a crowd of reporters. The writers
secretly called her Chucky because, like the homicidal doll in
the Child's Play movies, she would flash a toothy grin between
points or while delivering lethal comments about other players.
"What rivalry?" she said when asked about her showdowns with
Anna Kournikova. "I win all the matches."

Some bristled at her offhand arrogance, but in truth Hingis had
few enemies. The press loved her because few champions had ever
been so candid or so interested in being famous. Hingis loved
the tennis life--the travel, the endless interviews, the
mindless photo shoots--and she mitigated her interview-room
put-downs with a disarming warmth. Unlike the distant figures
who had sat atop the sport for decades, she bantered with
opponents before and after matches. In '98, when Jana Novotna
won Wimbledon after beating Hingis in the semifinals, Hingis
greeted the new champion with a shower of champagne. "What's
remarkable is that she can be so friendly, so good and so
professional," Novotna said then. "To me a champion is someone
who can lose and admit that the other player was better. Steffi
Graf has never done that in her life. But after I beat Martina,
she said, 'Jana is a great champion.'"

Yet within a year the two women were barely speaking. At the '99
Australian Open, where Hingis won her last Grand Slam singles
championship, her career reached a tipping point. Her penchant
for saying the first thing that came to mind went from immature
to ugly when, on the eve of the final, she described her
opponent--Amelie Mauresmo, a recently uncloseted lesbian--as
"half a man." Amid a tidal wave of criticism, Hingis publicly
denied and privately defended her comment, painting herself as a
pillar of integrity.

Evert, Hingis's WTA mentor, phoned her to discuss the
controversy, and "she got mad at me," Evert says. "I talked
about being diplomatic, but she just got on her horse about
being honest."

Dismounting was inconceivable to Hingis. As the '99 French Open
neared, she dumped Novotna as her doubles partner, telling her
she was too "old and slow." Novotna publicly called Hingis
"young and stupid" and said that Hingis's comments about
Mauresmo showed "how being the Number 1 tennis player in the
world doesn't mean you're necessarily intelligent."

Molitor watched all this with a combination of bemusement and
alarm. Hingis's adolescent behavior--bickering, late nights out,
raging hormones--had been taking a toll on their relationship
for a year. Hingis was deep in a love-'em-and-leave-'em run
through a string of tennis boyfriends: Julian Alonso, Justin
Gimelstob, Ivo Heuberger and Magnus Norman, all of whom
plummeted in the rankings after they took up with her. In her
world, boys threatened to supplant everything else. "For me, the
private thing was very interesting," Hingis says. "I was Number
1, but it wasn't satisfying enough. I wanted something else. I
was 17, and I wanted to experiment."

She had also gained 10 pounds, and she was a step slower moving
to the ball. "Changes came in my body, and all of a sudden I
couldn't get there," Hingis says. "I was like, What the hell is
going on?" She loved glamorous clothes, even if sometimes she
looked like a fifth-grader who had just raided her mother's
closet. Tottering on a pair of high heels at California's Indian
Wells resort in the spring of '99, Hingis passed a pack of boys
who asked her name. "You won't forget who I am next time," she
said teasingly.

They hadn't forgotten in Paris, where Mauresmo's fans went to
Roland Garros to give Hingis hell and instead found themselves
playing the chorus in a Sophoclean melodrama. Rarely has hubris
received so perfect a comeuppance. Ahead 6-4, 2-0 in the French
Open final against Graf--whom Hingis had declared past her prime
two summers earlier, when Graf was rehabbing a severely injured
knee--Hingis protested a poor line call, failed to get an
overrule and simply couldn't let the matter go. Up in the stands
Molitor felt disaster coming. "Before every match then, I was
scared that Martina suddenly would snap," she says. "It
was...puberty. Nothing more. Only this time the whole world was
watching."

Hingis threw an epic tantrum, one of those explosions of
self-righteousness for which only a teenager can muster the
energy. In a move that violated all notions of tennis etiquette,
Hingis walked around the net to Graf's side and pointed out the
spot where her disputed shot had fallen. The French fans
pounced; boos and hisses filled the air. Hingis plopped into her
chair and refused to play. She was docked a point. She resumed
play, held on to her lead and then, serving for the match at
5-4, blew the game. Now Graf pounced. Cheered on by the crowd,
she won the second set and took a commanding lead in the third,
and still Hingis couldn't stop sulking. Facing two match points,
she insulted Graf and the game by serving underhand. The crowd
howled, and Graf closed out the match. Hingis stormed off the
court and refused to return for the awards ceremony until
Molitor dragged her back, her face contorted and teary. When a
WTA official tried to guide her toward the podium, Hingis
smacked her on the arm.

Later, when Hingis saw photos of the debacle, she thought, What
a baby. It's the only moment in her tennis career that she
regrets. "I had to pay a high price," she says. "Sometimes when
you're so good and everyone tells you you are, you lose it. You
think you really are the greatest and you're allowed to do
anything. But you're not. There are still rules in the world."

And there, after a run of just two years, the Hingis era in
women's tennis ended. She broke with her mother and, at
Wimbledon, won just two games in losing to qualifier Jelena
Dokic in the first round. The next week Hingis returned to her
mother in tears. Though she finished the year No. 1--and won
nine tournaments in 2000 to retain the ranking--something in
Hingis cracked that Saturday in Paris. Her feel for the big
stage deserted her; she became more insecure.

Once a remorseless finisher, Hingis has become known for an
astonishing fragility. The first rival to make a dent in her
confidence was Davenport. Starting in January 1999, Hingis lost
to her quickly and often. Completely cowed, Hingis lost the 2000
Australian Open final to Davenport in straight sets and then, at
the awards ceremony, made a startling confession: "I just can't
play you." Davenport was stunned.

"I was like, Oh, God, what is she saying?" Davenport says. When
the two played again in Indian Wells a few months later, Hingis
led by a set and a break, but, Davenport says, "when I got the
break back--it was 4-all, and she still was only two games from
the match--she just folded. She didn't want to deal with it."

Then came the Williams sisters. After beating Venus in the '97
U.S. Open final, Hingis never expected her or Serena to learn
how to harness their power, to tailor their games to the moment
and opponent. It wasn't long before Hingis was losing to them,
too. At the '99 U.S. Open, Hingis (who sparked a first-week row
by declaring that Richard Williams had "a big mouth") lost to
Serena in the final. Venus edged Hingis en route to the 2000
Wimbledon title, and then, in a classic rematch in the semis of
the U.S. Open, Hingis fully revealed her lack of resolve. Up
5-3, 15-30 in the third set, with Williams so spent that her
father walked out of the stadium, Hingis engaged her in a
net-kissing, 21-stroke rally that was as good as anything ever
seen in women's tennis. After the 20th stroke Hingis was poised
at net for an easy overhead to set up championship point.
Instead, Hingis fluttered the ball into Williams's backhand
wheelhouse, and she flailed at the return as the ball and the
match flew out of reach. "That was the first time I realized,"
Hingis says. Her champion's aura was gone.

Still, she has her moments. She's surrounded by photographers,
and it's as if the past three years had never happened. One
April weekend finds two film crews at Hingis's home outside
Zurich. Attention makes Hingis glow; besides, she says with a
roll of the eyes, "it's better than practice." Now the screaming
of chopper blades is heard, and faces appear in the windows of
the neighboring houses. Hingis scrambles across a field, ducks
beneath the helicopter's terrifying gale. Within seconds she is
hurtling toward the city, her city, where people sit waiting to
cheer her.

The occasion is a Swiss TV show, and she is dressed to kill:
black boots, black pants, black tee top covered by a translucent
white blouse. Her lips are glazed. Off her necklace two silver
balls drop onto the skin below her throat. When the relieved
host of the show, Beni Thurnheer, sees her in the makeup chair,
he says, "We are saved by Martina, our only known star."

Things are going nicely. The fact that the next day's WTA
rankings will drop Hingis to fourth doesn't seem to concern her.
On her computer she has been following the progress of her
boyfriend of three months, golfer Sergio Garcia. Just before she
walks onto the set, an introductory montage flashes on the
monitor backstage. Hingis watches intently as the screen shows
her banging groundstrokes, kissing a trophy, her mom clapping.
The director calls her to the wings then, and the timing
couldn't be better. Just as Hingis steps away, the "after"
portion begins on the monitor: one image of defeat after
another--Hingis grimacing, throwing her racket, burying her face
in her hands. But she doesn't see it. Thurnheer announces her
name, the studio crackles with applause, Hingis walks grinning
into the light. She couldn't be happier.

Already, a racket has been tossed. Already, just minutes into
practice, too many balls have flown long, the drill has been
stopped, the male hitting partner is kicking at the clay. Hingis
stands in the muted light of an indoor court, her mother walking
toward her. Hingis knows what's coming; she's heard it forever.
Mother doesn't want her to take it so easy. Mother wants her to
come on the court at full speed. Molitor jabbers in Czech--it's
Hingis's first language, but dulled by her years of speaking
Swiss-German in Switzerland and English on tour--which annoys
Martina because she can't keep up. So she talks back in
Swiss-German, which makes Molitor nuts because she can't keep up
in that language.

"I've been on the tour for years," Hingis says. "I think my body
needs a little warmup time."

"You could have warmed up before," Molitor snaps. She can be
funny and warm, but the closer she gets to a racket, the more
constipated her demeanor becomes. "When you're on court, keep
your mind on the court," she says. "Don't wait a half hour. Why
should you be doing those things wrong?"

"Well," Hingis says with a shrug, "sometimes I'm lazy. I don't
want to put in that whole effort right from the start." Molitor
walks off, head down. She and her daughter have one of the most
scrutinized relationships in tennis. Molitor has always been
known as one of the "good" parents on tour, credited with
raising a daughter who is interested in things besides the fuzzy
ball, with mixing tennis training and mountain biking and even
throwing a football, and with telling Hingis, even at her peak,
in 1997, "If you don't want to play ever again, you shouldn't."
Yet no parent looks grimmer during matches. "Martina is always
playing--with life, with people, with everything," Molitor says.

So it is today. Hingis goes through her paces, but she's aware
of everything off her court: her dog, her manager (Mario Widmer,
Molitor's longtime partner), a visiting reporter, the women
playing doubles on a nearby court, the twentysomething lad
blasting serves alone on another court. She grins and wiggles
her eyebrows at today's hitting partner. He doesn't stand a
chance. After a few days Hingis wraps these young men around her
racket, and they start trying to please her, feeding her the
shots she wants. Molitor knows that won't do. Venus Williams
won't feed Hingis anything but a forehand to the teeth.

Hingis has broken away from her mother for short periods, but
she can't imagine playing without her. If Molitor were to die,
Hingis says, she'd probably retire. There's no one whose tennis
knowledge she respects more, but Molitor is more than a coach,
of course. She does everything to free her daughter to play.
Molitor books hotels, analyzes matches and opponents, picks up
all balls after practice and, every night, strings Hingis's
rackets. During Grand Slam events, it takes Molitor three hours
to cut out the old gut and retool the eight rackets Hingis will
need the next day, and even during visits home she'll string two
or three rackets a night. For Molitor, stringing is the
equivalent of breast-feeding: sometimes painful, always
time-consuming and endured for the good of the child. Lord knows
there's almost nothing Molitor hates more. "I know," Hingis
says, "but she does it."

Widmer calls Molitor Mother Teresa because of her penchant for
giving away money, but it's her cool calculation that got all
three of them where they are today. Molitor, a Top 25 player in
Czechoslovakia, began raising a tennis pro the instant she knew
she was pregnant, in 1980. She competed until five weeks before
she gave birth, winning a tournament in the process: Martina,
she crows, was a champion before she was born. Twelve days after
the Caesarean section, Molitor was back on court. People assume
she named her daughter after Martina Navratilova for tennis
reasons, but Molitor insists the choice was about much more:
Five years earlier Navratilova had defected to the West. "She
was a symbol of freedom," Molitor says. "She was a symbol of
everything: life, existence apart from the political system. She
was something big. She could break the system. She could go
outside."

Molitor couldn't. Her father, Milan, had fought the Nazis and
then opposed the Communists, who took power in Czechoslovakia in
1948. Arrested in 1952, he spent the next six years mining
uranium and suffering lung damage at a labor camp. Finally
freed, he went home to the Czech town of Roznov, began writing
letters to organize a revolt and was sent back to the mines for
two more years. Melanie was three when he came home for good.
Battered but unbroken, he worked as a laborer until the Prague
Spring of 1968. His family was never trusted. Though Melanie
showed promise as a player, she says Czech authorities wouldn't
let her travel outside the country.

By age 18 she had moved from Roznov to play on a steel-mill team
in the Slovakian town of Kosice, and there she met a mechanic
and tennis buff named Karol Hingis. His friends called him Muna,
a Slovakian term for someone who is gullible and plodding, but
on the day he married Melanie, in 1978, she accosted a group of
men and announced, "From today, you will not call my husband
Muna. His name is Karol."

Martina grew up on a tennis court, accompanying her mother there
each day from age two. At first they hit for 10 minutes a day,
and eventually for hours, but Melanie always made sure Martina
competed in matches. When Martina was three, the family moved
back to Roznov. Mother and daughter would play doubles against
men killing time before their mill shifts began, and the only
way a small kid could survive was by inching inside the
baseline, taking the ball early. Karol and Melanie were already
at odds over the intensity of Martina's training, and he was
soon miserable being away from Kosice. Melanie, meanwhile, was
thinking of emigrating. "I wanted to achieve something in life,
and Karol didn't have any interest in what was happening next
week," she says.

The two divorced a year later. By age six Martina had won 80
official matches. At seven, competing in a tournament for
nine-year-olds, she played lefthanded because she had broken
some fingers on her right hand. When Martina was eight, Melanie
married a traveling Swiss computer salesman, Andreas Zogg, and
the family moved to Trubbach, Switzerland, and out of Karol's
life. Only a decade later did Molitor realize that Muna had
stayed with his daughter all along. "Her character and mentality
are exactly like her father's: She does the minimum," Molitor
says of Martina. "She doesn't have an iron will."

This is a classic Czech trait, according to Molitor and Widmer,
who began living together in 1997. It's the same live-for-today
quality that inspired Czech writer Milan Kundera to plumb his
nation's psyche under titles such as The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Hingis is
Czech through and through, Molitor insists. "She likes the
moment," Molitor says. "When she's on the court, with a match in
her hand, she doesn't think how it will be in 10 minutes or a
half hour. She doesn't care. She's having fun. It's just a game
for her."

Such a lack of urgency "drives me crazy," Molitor continues,
"but I have to live with it because we are mother and daughter.
If I were just a coach, I would've quit a long time ago."

Never mind that former Czechs Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, their
eyes always on history, were the two biggest grinds in tennis.
Whether Hingis's nature is Czech or merely her father's, she is
certainly unlike any No. 1 before her or since. When someone
says that talented Swiss pro Patty Schnyder, without
distractions, could have achieved much more in her career,
Hingis says, "Who couldn't?" That Hingis has a champion's mind
is obvious, but as her losses mount and critics question her
heart, it's good to remember that her open, unobsessive
personality was precisely what the sport needed when she broke
in. Nowadays fans may find her lightness unbearable because "the
perception the public has of athletes, she can't fulfill," says
Widmer, a former sports editor of the Swiss newspaper Blick.
"People want athletes to win, they want to witness them
fighting, and Martina is just not that type. She's not a
fighter. She's a player."

But she's not just her father's child; she's her mother's, too.
Speaking the truth matters to Molitor more than context or
perception or feelings. Speaking the truth means cutting up her
daughter's character--at times in Martina's presence. Hingis
inherited that quality in spades. When, in 1994, she humiliated
Kournikova 6-0, 6-0 in the U.S. Open juniors, she greeted
Kournikova at the net with a huge grin and said, "Boy, that was
easy."

A more diplomatic person wouldn't be so eager to state the
obvious, but that wouldn't be honest, would it? The fact is,
Graf was nearing the end of the line in '97, Novotna was old and
slow by '99 and Richard Williams does talk too much. When, at
Wimbledon in 2000, Serena Williams wondered about the
distracting influence of boyfriends, Hingis responded, "I don't
know if she had any experiences. How can she talk about that?"
The "half a man" gaffe aside, there has always been a germ of
truth in what Hingis says, but it's overshadowed by the cruel
streak she calls candor. Carillo says Hingis at her playing peak
was "sharklike," someone who "really enjoyed toying with
people," and it's no coincidence that Hingis's on-court fade
came as her off-court life grew more intriguing. She got herself
a new set of toys.

Hingis hoots at her black-widow image on tour, but it's clear
that she enjoys it. Just as Kournikova envies her success,
Hingis envies Kournikova's glamour. Regardless, the two are a
formidable doubles team; they won their second Grand Slam title
at the 2002 Australian Open. "On the court she completes me,"
Hingis says. Off the court, though, it's clear who Hingis thinks
the more daring. "Hey," she says, laughing, "Femme Fatale is on
my American Express ad!"

A year ago Hingis began one of the more bizarre romances in the
annals of modern celebrity when she dated Chris Calkin, the
31-year-old Miami prosecutor who locked up a man who'd been
stalking her. It didn't seem strange to Hingis, though; and if
it was, who cares? "You just meet somebody and find him
attractive," she says. "I don't regret any relationship. It was
great for my English." After 10 months the affair ended. "How do
you explain it?" Hingis says. "I met somebody else."

She's not too concerned about the wreckage she leaves behind. In
that way, too, Hingis is like her mother--always willing to move
on. Shortly before Martina became No. 1, there were stories out
of Kosice about Karol Hingis: how he lived in a drab apartment
building with his mother, how he had signed away his rights to
see Martina and rarely talked to her, how he drove a tiny car
and made a few hundred dollars a month sweeping tennis courts,
stringing rackets, fixing the occasional bus. When Martina
returned to Kosice in 1997 to play Fed Cup, Karol greeted her at
the airport with flowers. He attended every match and practice.

Since then, Martina says--and sources in Kosice confirm--things
have improved some. She talks to her father once a week, and
during tournaments he'll call her cellphone almost daily. She
has a house in Roznov, and Karol drove four hours to see her
when she was there last year. She wants to make it clear that
she's "trying to help him" but that he wants nothing but to stay
in Kosice. When she talks to him, Hingis hears exactly what her
mother is talking about. She doesn't like being like him.

"Oh, yeah, I've tried to escape it," she says. "Every time I
talk to him, it's always something: He was in the hospital, he
had fever, he had a bad shoulder, he had to take antibiotics.
I'm like, 'Dad, what are you doing all the time? Can't you just
be healthy for a little bit?' But in a way he's happy. He
wouldn't want to do more to have a better life."

There was a time last fall, as she recovered from ankle surgery,
when Hingis embraced all the elements of a classic comeback: She
went back to her old, varied training methods, ran hard in the
mountains. "I was lighter, in my head I was fresh, mentally I
was there," she says. "I was hungry again to prove myself and to
see if I could really get to the top. I wanted to know if I
still had it in me."

It wasn't enough. Hingis went to the 2002 Australian Open, blew
through a soft draw and then took that 6-4, 4-0 lead over
Capriati in the final. But her mind was still flabby; she
wondered why she was winning so easily, and she crumbled. The
younger players don't fear Hingis anymore. She has lost her last
five Grand Slam finals. She hasn't beaten any of the other four
top players in more than a year. She wonders if she'll ever win
another major. "I think I still have the chance," she says. "I'm
not sure."

What happened to Martina Hingis? She's up in the bedroom of one
of her two houses in Switzerland. She has four horses, a
stoplight-yellow Porsche. The Friday-evening light has begun to
fade in the window overlooking the lake. Downstairs, in the
front hallway, Molitor has set up the stringing machine and
clamped down a frame, and the sound of her tinkering travels
upstairs.

Molitor understands better than anyone that, to survive, Hingis
must become a student of her opponents and of today's power-and
fitness-driven game. "But she's not ready for that," Molitor
says. "I hope she's getting ready to really want to learn." That
Hingis isn't driven to do so, of course, presents a nearly
impossible coaching task. "The only thing I can do is try to
help Martina to play as well as possible," Molitor says, "so she
doesn't get close to needing that drive."

Today's lesson, then: Generate more pop on groundstrokes by
hitting off the back foot. In her room, Hingis stands on her
Oriental rug to demonstrate. For her backhand she shifts to her
left foot and says, "I'm not strong enough on that leg."

Two weeks from now, after a week of hard practice, constant pain
and a loss to Venus Williams in Hamburg, Hingis will pull out of
the German Open, followed the next week by a withdrawal from
Rome, then Roland Garros. Last June, Hingis sued Italian
sportswear manufacturer Sergio Tacchini for $40 million for
allegedly supplying shoes "unsuitable for competition and
causing injury to both feet and her left knee and hip." The two
parties have been warring since 1999, when Hingis stopped
wearing Tacchini products and Tacchini sued her for breach of
contract. Tacchini's stance is that Hingis's suit is merely a
ploy to avoid paying millions in damages. Buehlmann insisted
last week that "100 percent of her injuries were caused by the
instability of the shoes" she wore from ages 11 to 19.

But Hingis doesn't mention Tacchini now. "Sometimes my mother
will say, 'If you don't [hit off the back foot], I'm not going
to be here,' or 'If you don't do what I'm saying, you don't
believe in it,'" Hingis says. "But it hurts. Then Mario says,
'If you were 10 pounds lighter, it wouldn't be as painful maybe.'"

Hingis begins speaking of how grateful she is to her mother, but
her cellphone rings. "Hey!" she says. "?Que tal?" It's Garcia,
calling from Hilton Head, S.C. The two met at the Australian
Open and have become serious about each other. "You're done with
your game? How did you do?" She lifts her mouth from the
receiver and whispers, "He says, 'I'm just useless.'" She turns
back to the phone. "I know: Yesterday I looked at the computer,
you were, like, one under par.... It will come.... Right now
you're waiting to make the cut? O.K. You might make it. You're
still one under? O.K., call you later, that's all, bye-bye." She
hangs up. Asked if Garcia is one of the leaders, she says, "Oh,
no, he played like s---."

"With Sergio, I know I can be myself," she says. "Before, I
always tried to be something better. I wanted to give guys too
much. I thought relationships were the most important thing
because tennis is always going to be there for me. But now I've
learned that if I don't try to give something back to tennis,
I'm not as good."

Still, she worries. In the past the better she felt with the men
in her life, the worse she played. She admits that she's happier
than ever. She's taking Spanish lessons. "He's not here, so I
have to focus on what I'm doing," she says of Garcia. "I'm
better at it when he's not around."

It's late. She walks downstairs. There, on a chair near the
kitchen, sit three freshly strung rackets. "There they are,"
Molitor says. It's an old-school stringing job, with four tiny
knots framing a field of precisely arranged squares. Hingis
glances at the rackets, like a plumber looking at a toolbox. She
doesn't know how to string. She doesn't want to know. She's a
player. Pretty soon, if she has her way, that's all she'll ever
be.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GERARD RANCINAN Ooh-la-la Hingis loves being a star, and though she wasn't in the spotlight in Paris this week, she was still a hot topic of conversation.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CALLOW Last hurrah? Hingis exulted after winning her Australian Open semifinal in January, two days before blowing the final against Capriati.B/W PHOTO: RINGIER AG Wunderkind Melanie put a racket in Martina's hand when she was two, and by age 10 she had a slew of medals and trophies.COLOR PHOTO: CORBIS-SYGMA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: RINGIER AG [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: CARYN LEVY Front-runner Hingis, who won the French juniors at 12 (bottom), mixed horseback riding and other sports with her tennis training.COLOR PHOTO: MARK LENNIHAN/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: CARYN LEVY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Glory days In '97, a dominant Hingis swept the Australian Open (bottom), Wimbledon (top) and the U.S. Open.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BOB MARTIN [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PAUL ZIMMER/AP Meltdown Since falling apart in Paris (with Molitor, far right) and exiting Wimbledon early (bottom) in '99, Hingis has broken down physically, beginning with an ankle injury late last year.COLOR PHOTO: MICHEL EULER/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: GARY M. PRIOR/ALLSPORT/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DOMENECH CASTELLO/AFP Glitter Hingis adores attention, whether publicly romancing Garcia, teaming with Kournikova or hyping products such as Omega.COLOR PHOTO: REUTERS/CORBIS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: GREG SOUSSAN [See caption above]
Even before the surgery, Hingis's commitment had been wavering.
"What more is there to prove?" she asked.
Her rise was so smooth, her game so elegant, that she seemed to
have crossed over from another tennis dimension.
Hingis's open, unobsessive personality was exactly what tennis
needed when she broke onto the scene.
With impeccable timing and a dancer's balance, she left her victims bewildered. "I stress them out," she said.
Something in Hingis cracked that day in Paris. Her feel for the
big stage deserted her; she became insecure.
It's no coincidence that her on-court fade came as her off-court
life grew more intriguing. She got herself some new toys.
"She does only what she has to do to get by," Molitor says of her
daughter. "She only works as long as it's fun and isn't hurting."