The start of something big
January 14, 1996
The Sunday Age
Although she is only 15, Martina Hingis may already be doing more for women's tennis than any other player. Gerard Wright reports.
MARTINA HINGIS is the anti-Capriati. As fair as Jennifer Capriati was dark. Slight where Capriati was, ahem, solid.
All angles and deception where Capriati was straight lines and full-on power. Happy, settled and ambitious when Capriati was nurturing a chip on the shoulder. Guided where Capriati was pushed.
She signs autographs with a half-smile, shrugs off losses and on-court temper fits with grace and wit, regards this second long lap around the globe as an adventure, not a grind.
She graces a court with panache, imagination and passion, as anyone who saw her first-round, three-set match in Sydney against Naoko Sawamatsu would attest.
At White City, rugby league giants such as Bradley Clyde could arrive relatively unmolested. Hingis' passage was always notable for the trail of autograph seekers in her wake.
This is part of what Melanie Zogg created when she put a wooden racquet, sawn off at the handle, in her two-year-old daughter's hand in their home in an apartment block in what was then Czechoslovakia, all those years ago - 1982-83 in fact.
''I started really early, just when I could walk," Hingis recalls. She began hitting balls for about 10 minutes a day.
Her first tennis memory is of the following year, hitting on a clay court with her mother, a rally in which she hit the ball 299 times over the net, full court.
''. . . and the 300 was in the net."
She pulls a face at the memory. She looks, talks and acts like the 15-year-old that she is. She already plays tennis like very few adults can. She sees the tennis court as a great chess player sees the board, according to Daniel Fricker of the Zurich newspaper 'Blick', who has travelled to Perth to report Hingis' exploits in the Hopman Cup.
The player that Australia saw for the first time last year and took immediately to its heart at what was then the NSW Open is older, smarter, more athletic, more aggressive, hits the ball harder and is more conversant in English this time, which means that she can tell a remarkable story in (mostly) her own words.
The interview headed in the same direction along two separate paths, with answers in German and English. Some of Hingis' answers begin in her second language and end in her first, with Fricker offering to translate the difference.
At home in Switzerland, she takes two hours of lessons each days, ''English and French . . . and more English."
She played her first competitive match as a four year-old, in an under-nine competition. She remembers she lost, 12-0.
``At five and six, I play a little better. At six and seven, I won all these tournaments. Won one of them playing left-hand because a finger was broken on my right hand."
She remembers playing in her birthplace of Kosice, near the Slovakian border.
''Always, 40 kids on the court, and the whole afternoon we were playing games, doubles, mixed, everything. I was five, six years old." No one told her she had a special talent, she says through Fricker. ''It was like a fact."
Then, in her own words: ''It was normal that I played so good. That was from the practising and so much play. I was four or five hours on the court. I was not unhappy. I was always with the the kids and we played."
Hingis moved with her mother to Switzerland when she was eight. Less than six years later, she had become a cause celebre in women's tennis - not the reason that laws limiting the age at which an outstanding child player could turn professional were being re-written, but nevertheless, the focus for them.
The initial intention, contained in a report commissioned by the Women's Tennis Association, had been to raise the minimum age from 14 to 16 to reduce the risk of burnout to its youngest members.
Hingis' agents, the International Management Group, protested that because she had already announced her intention to turn professional on her 14th birthday, 30 September 1994, she would be retrospectively penalised by such a change to the rules. It was also believed that IMG was prepared to back up these protests with court action.
The ensuing compromise allowed Hingis to play 12 tournaments in her first 12 months of professional life and 15 in the next.
Perhaps not surprisingly, her new peers were suspicious, or at least sceptical, about the heat and light generated by this First Coming, as Hingis sensed at the time.
''At the start it was (let's see) if she can play . . . the press has made everything. They wanted proof.
''After I played to my standard, played pretty good (she won her first professional match, against American Patty Fendick, a top 50 player, and reached the quarter-finals of her second and third tournaments), partnered all the other girls (in practice) . . ."
In Australia last summer, further substance was added to the hype: an absorbing three-set match with American Lindsay Davenport, ranked sixth in the world, at the NSW Open - this after the usually blase dressing-room occupants dropped everything to loll in the sun on the White City lawn adjoining centre court to watch Hingis dismantle 40th-ranked American Meredith McGrath in three sets. In Melbourne, she became the youngest player since 1968 to win an Australian Open singles match.
This was just the start. There followed a third-round appearance at the French Open and a journey into the second week at the US Open, marked by a second-round win over eighth seed Magdalena Maleeva.
Wimbledon was part examination, part coming out, as though, finally, she was being formally presented to the wider sporting and social society. Her first match was on centre court. Against Steffi Graf.
Hingis has thought long and hard about that match and how she approached it. Not many tennis players talk this way. She said 1995 was a great experience, especially tournaments such as Hamburg, where she reached the final, and the US Open.
Berlin (second-round loss to Sabine Hack), ''Ooohhh, yecchhh! . . . but Wimbledon was also not the best."
Hingis laughed at the memory and continued. ''It was hard. I know that on the first day, I had to play Steffi Graf and she lost last year in the first round - now she wants to win the tournament again and she's in good form and everything. You are going on the court already resigned.
''For me, it was like feeling I was already . . . I tried to play my best, but it was very difficult, especially because you could not practise there (centre court). The other courts were much faster and this court was like a carpet."
But Hingis has long since come of age on the tennis court, and disputes any suggestion that this has happened at the cost of either a childhood or a normal life - in the sporting sense anyway.
''That's not true. Look at the other kids. Swimming is so hard, and gymnastics. Why don't you ask them? At 14-15, they start to make this (level) and they're so little and they have problems. If you're in a hotel like here, I don't think it's a bad life, tennis."
When the age issue and its worst-case scenario, Jennifer Capriati, is pursued, it's as though Hingis' face is suddenly wiped clean of any expression. She answers unassisted.
''Always they're American girls who have died (sic) from tennis. They have to look to themselves and not always speak about the Europeans. It's different. I think they have problems with the family.
''Andrea Jaeger used to practise five, six hours. I practice one-and-a-half, two hours a day. It's different. There are problems with the family, not a problem with tennis. I never looked to Andrea Jaeger or Tracy Austin. I am Martina Hingis and I have my own way to grow."
Gradually, she thaws again. The composed near-adult of the court and the press conference, is a smart, gregarious teenager who has met her peers more than half-way, and in so doing, she says, has encouraged them out of their off-court enclaves and into the sunshine.
She plays doubles with Iva Majoli, enjoys the company of Anke Huber and Chanda Rubin. She will hit on the practice court with anyone.
In real life, tennis is a sociable sport, an agreeable way, as a rugby writer once said of his chosen pursuit, to raise a thirst. Gradually, by Hingis' reckoning, this view is seeping into women's tennis. It's a war only on the court.
''I think it changed because I was coming in, because I was normal (laughs) and I was speaking with them, speaking with everybody. Others also wanted to change a little bit, but they had not chance, because nobody wants them (to talk)."
She is ranked 16th in the world now (87th a year ago), and has the ability and the personality to change the way women's tennis is regarded.
At the Peters International (formerly the NSW Open) last week, she played the most enthralling match of the women's tournament, against Naoko Sawamatsu, a contest featuring missed match points, racquets bounced and thrown (Hingis both), excuses mentally rehearsed (by Sawamatsu, the eventual winner as she faced three match points) and breathtaking shot play.
Hingis continues to bring out the best in her oppponents, even as she continues to explore her capabilities. She and the game may be on the threshold of something remarkable.