Tennis is art in the hands of Hingis
JEFF WELLS has seen the future of women's tennis, and is already lining up for the tickets.
January 8, 1996
Sydney Morning Herald
I HAVE seen the saviour of women's tennis. She is a porcelain trinket of a Swiss girl with a ponytail. She looks about as tough as Audrey Hepburn in Gigi - and has the same gamine charm.
But at 15 Martina Hingis is blessed with genius, and seems the one player headed for the top who can return art to the women's game.
It is a big call, but after watching her in the Hopman Cup - especially the way she coolly nonplussed rocket man Goran Ivanisevic during the mixed doubles match in the final - I believe she will become the Ken Rosewall of the women's game.
Rosewall didn't have a big serve or a lot of grunt against the powerhouses of his time - and even in the age of wooden racquets there were plenty who gave the ball an almighty clout - but he had the chessmaster's mind and the perfect timing to beat the best.
These days women are bigger and stronger - "Muscles" Rosewall would even look wimpy in against Monica Seles or Steffi Graf.
However, even the smaller women are now able to camp on the baseline and hammer the ball with those big blunderbuss racquets.
Unfortunately, this technology-given prowess is not matched by a God-given ability to glide to the net and volley. Thus the supreme creative element of the game - to pluck a pinging ball from the air and place it with devastating accuracy - is still missing from the women's game.
I am convinced that, from now on, whenever Hingis is on court in a competitive match - not one of the usual early-round drubbings which make the women's game such a yawn - a ticket will be a gilt-edged sporting investment.
And it is only a year since I went to an outside court during the early rounds of the Australian Open to see the then 14-year-old wunderkind, who had stirred a heated debate about exploitation, and came away wondering "so what?". There was a swirling wind that day and Hingis didn't look outstanding against a low-ranked opponent.
She didn't have much of a serve, she didn't have any extra power, and she rarely ventured near the net.
My verdict then was a disappointed "more of the same".
This kid might have talent, and she might climb rapidly past the usual suspects among the pretenders, but what would happen when she ran up against the force of Seles or Graf?
Looking at Hingis's slender frame it is hard to believe that she will ever match the physiques of Graf and Seles. So the delicious prospect is one of brains battling brawn.
Hingis is one of those priceless athletes who seem to have time to spare no matter how explosive the action around them.
You see it in the lazy grace of everything Mark Waugh does on a cricket pitch. We once saw Sugar Ray Leonard with so much time on his hands that he could poke his chin out at the savage Roberto Duran and break him mentally into a "no mas" submission.
There have been supremely relaxed jockeys - Athol Mulley was one - who could confidently navigate through traffic and win by a lip.
I thought our best soccer player, Ned Zelic, was struggling for pure speed until I went to ground level and saw the way he ate up ground with his stride.
Like Ned, little Martina doesn't seem to expend a lot of energy even when the shells are whistling wide. But like Ned she gets there and has time to decide what she wants to do.
And she seems to have depth and finesse on every shot at her disposal, from tantalising lobs, to inside-out forehands down the line, to two-handed backhand cross-court zingers.
Somehow she seems to waft around the centre of the baseline while her opponents are run ragged.
BUT, ah, could she volley? She may already look to have far more potential than anybody except Seles or Graf, but could she expect to prevail against them playing the same baseline hammer game?
I believe if she can keep her psyche glued, Seles will be almost unbeatable for a couple of years, eclipsing the troubled Graf, until someone comes along who can manipulate her - bring her forward, with no angles, so that the dexterity of her two-handed racquet skills is tested.
And Seles's nemesis will have to be someone who can feed off her power - the way John McEnroe almost seemed to let the ball linger on the strings before guiding it to the line - and get to the net.
In the mixed doubles match of that Hopman Cup final I was left in no doubt Hingis can dominate at the net.
She won't always have to get there while she is running people around like crazed rabbits.
But when she does get there she will have the exquisite racquet skills, and instincts, to become the next great female player.
I almost said woman player - but Martina could become a true champion while still a gracious, charming child.