1997 article on Martina Hingis in Vogue
Born to Serve
Martina Hingis has been burning up the courts since she was too small
to see over the net.Now she's a new breed of champion,John Heilpern
finds,whose self-confidence is as dazzling as her game.
At sixteen,Martina Hingis,the Tiger Woods of tennis,is the youngest
player to hold the number-one ranking.She also happens to have made her first million dollars faster than any other player,male or female.But
there are many firsts about the phenomenal Hingis,for there has never
been a star on the women's circuit like her,and none quite so gifted.
"Talents like this happen once or twice in a lifetime,"says Nick
Bolletieri,the renowned Florida coach of,among many champions,Andre
Aggasi,Boris Becker,and Monica Seles.He remembers seeing Hingis playing
in the junior French Open when she was twelve."She was awful sloppy.
No serve.But once she played the points,she knew exactly what to do with the ball.She had an animal instinct for the game,an exceptionally
strong mentality.I saw it then.She's just a born winner."
Two years ago,the fourteen-year-old Hingis visited the Bollettieri
Sports Academy with her mother,Melanie Molitor,a top-ranked tennis player in her native Czechoslovakia and now her daughter's coach."My advice was don't chnage a thing,"Bolletieri recalls."There was nothing I could do for her."
Early this year,Hingis won the Australian Open,demolishing the former
prodigy Mary Pierce 6-2,6-2,in the final,and became the youngest Grand Slam champion since Lottie Dod won Wimbledon 110 years ago.
Lottie Dod,where are you now?Martina Hingis-named after Martina
Navratilova and destined her mother says,to become a top tennis star
since she came out of the womb-is a cool new breed of champion who not only seems unbeatable but says so.When she also won the doubles championships at the Australian Open-the first to win both singles and doubles titles there since Navratilova in 1985-she announced in tactless candor."I should play mixed doubles next year but I have to give someone else a chance to win an event!"
The young-and amiable-Hingis can't help herself.Her sunny confidence
isn't vanity.At sixteen,she plays with the skills of a veteran.At the
same time,her elegant ease on court reminds us that tennis was once a
game before it became a tough competitive circus.She feels no pressure;
she relishes victory.She's like a chess master who looks her opponent in
the eyes and says,quite pleasently,"Checkmate in two moves."
When we met earlier in the season during the Lipton Championships in
Key Biscayne,Florida,she told me with the casual certainty of an astronomer knowing the sun also rises that there was no logical reason she shouldn't win the tournament.Which she did,rolling over Monica Seles in the final,6-2,6-1.
Mary Carillo,the CBS tennis commentator.points out,"The kid is a true
original.Most players,particularly at her age,just want to hit the crap
out of the ball.But she's got a great feel for the game,a maturity and
guile and feathery touch that's coming from a different place.She's
comfortable in every part of the court which is very rare.She moves like
a dancer not a jock.Her backhand down the left court is a thing of beauty. John McEnroe said that he wnated to take the game to a level that most people can't comprehend.Hingis wants to do the same thing.She's making shots you dream about."
Martina Hingis was born September 30,1980,in Kosice,Czechoslovakia.
(Navratilova and Ivan Lendl,naturalized Americans,are also Czech-born.)
Her father coached tennis at a locla club;her mother was ranked twentieth in the country.Hingis was about eleven years old when,to her embarrassment, she started to beat her mother."As soon as I beat her her,I didn't want to play her,"she told me."I only wanted to play left-handed against her."
She first held a racket when she was two."I had just learned to walk.
I had a normal-size wooden racket,but the grip was cut away so I could
get my hand round it.We didn't practice too long-about 20 minutes a day in the house.Mum would toss me the ball.I started playing on a real court when I was three years old."
How could she see over the net?"I couldn't!You can see a little bit
through the net.But I only saw the ball when it was coming at me.I was
four when I played my first tournament."
A tournament for four-year-olds?"It was for upto nine-years-olds,"
she replied and laughed."I lost very badly.I knew where to stand and how to play a little bit,but I couldn't make it then.I lost 12-0,but i had my chances in every game."
Hingis doesn't take losing lightly.Here she is,the world's number one,
remembering her first loss,age four.And there's an implication that she
did better than it seems,and might even have won-as if it still matters.
I had chances in every game!
When did she know she could really play?"Since I was nine,"she said,
"when I started to play the international tournaments for fourteen-year-olds. At ten,I was winning some of them.At eleven,I won the European Championships. At twelve,the Junior French Open,which is open to eighteen-year-olds.I was the youngest to win it.At thirteen,I won the Junior U.S. Open and Junior Wimbledon.If I can say so,I would be stupid if I didn't play tennis."
Martina Hingis' parents seperated when she was seven,and her mother took her to live in Trubbach,Switzerland.Her mother married and divorced a Swiss businessman;Hingis is now a Swiss national.Her home in Switzerland has it's own tennis court.Another house is being built in the Czech Republic, where her father still lives.She clouded over a little when I asked about him.
"I see him about two or three times a year,"she said."But I'm always
travelling round the world.All the other players don't see their families
so often either."
She's on the road 35 weeks a year,playing about 20 tournaments and two Federeation Cups."It's better than going to school for eight hours a day!" Her constant companion is her mother,also her coach and "best friend." Don't teenagers want to flee their mom?I asked."But we have a great relationship,"she replied,and meant it."we're very close.We have little fights,sure.But no problem.We end up laughing."
The Tennis Parent from Hell is a common syndrome,like showbiz mothers. Fathers might have the poorer record.(Steffi Graf's father has been in the slammer for financial irregurlarities related to her vast earnings; Mary Pierce took out a court order banning her father from seeing her.) Hingis's mother is very ambitious for her only daughter,no doubt.But the experts I've spoken to agree that she's bringing her along exactly right.
When I watched Hingis practice against a 22-year-old Czech man from
her hometown-the top women players hit with men,who can handle the speed and power-her mother was watching unobtrusively from the line.
They speak together in Czech.It was obvious their relationship was
relaxed and easy.
Prodigies are born,not made.But in nurturing Hingis' natural talent,
her mother knows what she's doing.She has actually held back the power
of Hingis's serve.The mechanics are perfect.But the stress on a young body can injure and weaken the back and shoulder.So she's building carefully. At present,Hingis just turns up her serve a notch or two when she has to. She doesn't train conventionally.She practices an hour or two a day, finding it boring.She prefers boxing (punching the bag),aerobics,in-line skating, biking, hiking, skiing, ice hockey.She has two horses and show jumps.In April,she was thrown from a friend's horse near her home in Switzerland and underwent arthroscopic surgery on her left knee. The damage wasn't major,and she took the scare in stride.But her mother wants her to keep her passion for riding,whatever the risks.It's a release from the high pressure of the circuit-a normal life.
We played this imaginary match.(A real match between us would have been ridiculous.)"It's the first round of the U.S. Open, and you've never
heard of me,"I suggested to Martina."My name's Joanna.I'm ranked 120 in
the world,and I'm going to blow you away."
She giggled at first.Then she looked at me calmly,as if I were nuts.
"It's not going to happen,"she said.
"You think you'll be back in the dressing room in 20 minutes,"I replied.
"But I'm good,Martina.And I'm going to beat you good.Here's my game plan. The first thing I do is pray.I'm praying my game is absolutely the best it can be,and yours is below form."
"It's a good prayer,"she said.
"I've got a fantastic serve,like a mule.You're going to be stretching
wide.I'm rushing the net.Crosscourt winner!Serve,volley,serve,volley!
Screamers down the line!I'm going to rough up your game and your rhythm."
"But I have a great return of serve.I'll pass you as you come in.Return
is my best shot."
"But the serve is going to be kicking into your body."
"I'm fast on court.I have a fast reaction."
"I'm fast,too,Martina.I'm fast and hard and I've nothing to lose.I'm going to come to the net and crush you."
"And I'm going to hit everything back faster and harder.I'll turn your
power against you.I can't make the power for myself too much.But I can take it off you.You don't see how strong I am.I can take your shot and play back the ball even harder.I'll pass you,play a lob,drop shot.And I'm going to play low and short.You can't play anything from there.You're going to lose power-and that's my chance.
"OK,"I said,though my confidence was ebbing."I change strategy.I stay back. I play from the back of the court."
She smiled."That's your death,for sure.I have great groundstrokes.Not
too many girls can hold up against them.I'll play from the back.I'll
let you run from one corner of the court to the other.All day,no problem.
But I might take the net.You won't know what I'll do.But if you stay
"She's the one!"Billie Jean King,the legend who revolutionized women's tennis,told me admiringly about Hingis."I like her cockiness and self-belief.She's not a passive woman.She's saying,'I'm here,and I'm really good,and I like being here.Watch me!'" She laughed lightly.
"We've felt for two or three years that she's the best in the world."
Could Billie Jean have beaten her when she was sixteen?"No way.Not
even close.It's like apples and oranges.Have you noticed how big these
girls are nowadays?We didn't even have professional women's tennis when I was sixteen.I used a wooden racket.You couldn't even crack an egg with a wooden racket."
Assuming Hingis stayed focused and healthy,what did King see as the
biggest dangers?"She has no history yet.She is only sixteen.She doesn't
have any memories of choking of losing to an unranked player.It will
happen.A bad patch happens to everyone.How will she handle herself?She's truly phenomenal,but there's also another young player out there who's also waiting in the wings.Maybe she's nine or ten years old-and we don't know who she is.In my case,this little girl named Chris Evert suddenly came along.Then Martina Navratilova came up to battle her.And it happens fast.Martina Hingis might not understand that there's always somebody who's going to give you fits."
I mentioned to Hingis that when Monica Seles was eighteen years old
and number one in the world,she told me that her heroes were Navratilova and Evert."When I was six years old,"Seles said,"I watched them play. And a few years later,I got to play them.It was the strangest feeling."
Hingis responded immediately:"It's the same for me.Because when I was little I always used to watch Monica Seles.She was my idol.She was
playing in a big tournament in Europe,and I got her autograph.I was so
excited to see her in person.And then,six months ago,I was playing her in a tournament in Oakland,and it was so weird.I was standing against her on the court!"
Hingis won 6-2,6-0.
Today,great players like Seles and Graf,in their 20s,seem like aging,
battle-scarred veterans.Neither of them will concede the crown to Hingis
without a fierce battle,and Graf,the seven-time Wimbledon champion,has
beaten Hingis twice on the Wimbledon grass.But that was yesterday.At 28, Steffi Graf has been playing half her life on the grinding international
circuit and over the past four years has suffered back and knee injuries.
At 24,Monica Seles is still gamely fighting to return to her best form
after she was stabbed in the back in 1993 by a German fan who thought
her number-one ranking should belong to Graf.Gabriela Sabatini has retired. The once irrepresible Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario seems burned-out at just 26.
The future belong to Hingis.The new generation includes the wildly
talented diamond in the rough,seventeen-year-old African-American
Venus Williams.And a stunning sixteen-year-old Russian,Anna Kournikova,
who has everything so far,except Hingis' discipline.Hingis has beaten
them both.But that,too,was yesterday,in the tennis game.Great champions need great opponents.Evert and Navratilova,Seles and Graf.The future center-court battles will be between Hingis, Kournikova and Williams, with luck.For the moment, Martina Hingis,with her $10 million Sergio Tacchini endorsement and untroubled, wonderful gifts, stands alone.It doesn't occur to her to look over her shoulder.
FUCK YOU, SEWTA.[/SIZE]