Overpowered or overruled?
April 1 2003
When the claycourt season starts this week, Martina Hingis will be missing for the first time since 1995. If this is the end, why? Linda Pearce reports.
The differences between Martina Hingis and Jelena Dokic extend beyond the obvious contrasts in playing style and parental influence. Hingis was the last of the child stars, a grand slam junior winner at 12 and full-time touring pro at 14; for all Dokic's objections to the age restrictions that governed her own emergence, hers is an example of a career paced by the rules Hingis was able to circumvent.
It is almost nine years since the Women's Tennis Council responded to concerns about the physical and/or emotional burnout of the game's young - notably Jennifer Capriati and, before her, Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger - by forming an independent commission to review the age eligibility rule. The resulting changes came into effect in 1995, banning 13-year-olds from senior tournaments and introducing a sliding scale of events girls could play before turning 18.
But, back then, there would be no restricting Hingis. To avoid delaying what was destined to be a brilliant career, the gifted Czech-born Swiss played three tournaments and established a double-figure ranking in 1994, the year in which Venus Williams also hurried to make her debut and ensure an exemption from the rules about to be tightened.
Soon enough, Hingis and the elder Williams met in their first grand slam final, the 1997 US Open, yet although the American has always chosen to follow a schedule limited by educational and other lifestyle choices, Hingis set about accumulating countless youngest-ever and accolades.
Although it is difficult to judge the impact of such an early start, and impossible to know what fate would have befallen Hingis had her entry to the game been delayed as it would be today, the reality is that, nine years on, she is worn out; at the age of 22 and suffering from chronic foot pain that she says restricts her time on the practice court so severely that she can no longer compete with the best, Hingis spends her days driving her Porsche to English classes and riding her new mare while distancing herself from the idea of a comeback.
At least, for all Dokic's problems, physical breakdown is not yet among them, although she continues to slide down the WTA rankings from her peak at No. 4 to her current place at No. 10. The one-time Australian has replaced her violent and destructive father with a qualified coach, Steffi Graf's former mentor Heinz Gunthardt, yet Dokic continues to push herself through more tournaments than any other member of the top 50, and plays more than the Williams sisters combined. The strain of her exertions, on and off the court, is showing.
Perhaps Dokic, soon to turn 20, is now in the position to make more of her own choices, more often, even if contesting the Australian circuit is unlikely to be one of them. (Her personal notes in this year's WTA media guide include brother Savo and mother Liliana, with no mention of estranged Daddy Damir).
Still, one can only wonder had the age eligibility rules not been overhauled in 1994, whether burnout would already have claimed another top-10 victim.
What exactly is ailing Hingis has been the source of as much discussion as the debate about her place among the game's greats, and whether, as has been argued, she was more than a transitional No. 1 who filled a temporary, pre-Williams hole at the top of the women's game.
Lindsay Davenport, who returned from a knee injury last year, has advised the five-time grand slam tournament winner, whose last major title was the 1999 Australian Open, to stop feeling sorry for herself and play through the pain. After all, if Lance Armstrong can beat cancer, and Thomas Muster could practice for hours each day in a wheelchair, what's stopping Martina?
One theory is that it has to do with everything having come so easily to Hingis before she was overwhelmed by the power-hitters for whom she could find no adequate means of counter-attack in her last 13 grand slams; that, after 209 weeks at the top, her pride and ego are more damaged than either of her feet.
What is not being disputed is that the loss of Hingis means the near-death of variety among the women's elite. Who else is so creative and instinctive? Who else relies so heavily on touch, placement, subtlety and tactical nous? Who else, apart from perhaps Justine Henin-Hardenne, can protest by their performances and mere presence that size and strength are not everything?
No one, sadly, and the latest indication that Hingis will not return came last month, in an interview with a Zurich newspaper, just weeks after admitting to a French publication that a return to the tour was "inconceivable". Speaking in Swiss-German, Hingis said "my dreams are over. Tennis will certainly still be part of my life, but not what it was before".
Despite all that, a more optimistic - or sceptical - view prevails elsewhere, and the WTA must await an official retirement announcement from her management company before removing Hingis from the rankings, where the former No. 1 has now dropped to 77th. It could well be that no such statement will be forthcoming until her lucrative endorsement deals expire, for the contracts of injured players must be honoured; not so, necessarily, for retirees.
And yet there is still hope in some circles of a Hingis comeback. She could, of course, take a break of four years, repair her body and freshen her mind, polish her English, ski, hike and ride, and still be just 26.
Whether she chooses to do it again, and whether her body permits it, may be another matter.
Meantime, Hingis serves as a reminder that the so-called Capriati Rules came too late for some and were skirted by others - to the game's detriment, perhaps, as much as to the welfare of its players.