Business not pleasure for Hingis

John Roberts on the tennis prodigy who is returning home in triumph
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The Independent Online
Martina Hingis was only three years old when last she saw the city of Kosice, her birthplace in Slovakia and home to her father still. Yesterday, 13 years on, "Martinka" returned from Switzerland, a tennis prodigy, the youngest Grand Slam singles champion of the century and poised to become the youngest world No 1 in history.

The Slovak Tennis Federation considered it appropriate to hold the Fed Cup tie against the Hingis-inspired Swiss tomorrow and on Sunday in Kosice rather than Bratislava, even though the Slovakian players are from the capital.

"They have given up home advantage," Hingis observed, making plain her intention to put business before pleasure. "I didn't grow up here, so I don't have any memories," she said. "In a way it's nice to see the place where I lived, but the most important thing is the team and the success. I want to win here.''

Jana Kvasnicova, of the Slovak Tennis Federation, dismissed speculation that the choice of venue is designed to rattle Hingis. "The original idea was to play in Bratislava," she said, "but the only suitable hall had already been booked.''

The visit to Kosice at least affords Martina the chance of a reunion with her father, Karol, and her paternal grandmother, "Babitschka". Karol Hingis earns pounds 102 per month as the caretaker of the Na Amicce Tennis Club and is helping with the organisation of the tie, which is indoors at the Mestksa Hala. Yesterday he met his daughter at Kosice airport with a bouquet.

Such is the fascination with the 16-year-old Hingis, who won the Australian Open singles title last month, that the Swiss tennis federation assigned a bodyguard to the squad on learning that a large number of Slovak journalists had booked rooms at the team's hotel.

A Swiss television crew was rebuked by Hingis's mother, Melanie, the team's non-playing captain, for paying too much attention to her daughter during a flight from Vienna. "This is not fair on the other girls," Melanie said, indicating Patty Schnyder and Emmanuelle Gagliardi. "Everybody's trying to make a sensation of Martina's return to Kosice, but she's not the only member of the team.''

The youngster's sojourn cannot compare, however, with the emotional return of her namesake, Martina Navratilova, to Prague for the Fed Cup in 1986, the great champion's first visit home after defecting to the United States in 1975.

Hingis last saw her father in December, when he travelled to Brno, in the Czech Republic, to watch her play in an exhibition match. They stay in contact by telephone. "They just have a regular relationship," Melanie, said, "as good as it can be if you are divorced.''

Since parting from her second husband, Andreas Zogg, a Swiss computer salesman, Melanie has reverted to her maiden name, Molitor. She had expressed apprehension about making the trip, recalling that "the time in Kosice wasn't one of the happiest times of my life.''

Melanie is from the Czech town of Roznov. A former tennis player, she coaches Martina and has been the driving influence behind her daughter.

After leaving Kosice, they lived in Roznov at the home of Melanie's mother until Martina was seven, at which point the pair emigrated to Trubbach in Switzerland with Mr Zogg.

"If Martina has any memories, they are of Roznov," Melanie said, "and most of them are things she has been told by other people."

The only thoughts likely to preoccupy her during the weekend will concern ways to out-play the opposition. The Slovak team comprises Karina Habsudova, who has defeated Hingis in their three previous matches, Katarina Studenikova, who eliminated Monica Seles in the second round at Wimbledon, and Henrieta Nagyova.

Not that Hingis is lacking confidence. "The Fed Cup is not as important to me as the other tournaments, but it is important to play for Switzerland, and there is a chance to move up [to World Group I]," she said. "For once I am going to do it like Steffi Graf - go to the place, look, play, win and leave.''

The Wimbledon champion, currently nursing an injured left knee, has withdrawn from forthcoming tournaments at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.

Unless Graf makes a dramatic recovery, Hingis will supplant her at the top of the WTA rankings on Monday 31 March, becoming the youngest ever world No 1 at 16 years, six months and one day.

Monica Seles was aged 17 years, three months and 9 days when she became the youngest No 1 on 11 March, 1991, eclipsing Tracy Austin, who was 17 years, three months and 26 days on 7 April, 1980.

When Hingis was born, on 30 September 1980, Austin was the world No 1, Andrea Jaeger, aged 15, was in the process of becoming the WTA's Newcomer of the Year and Karolj Seles, a cartoonist in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, was making drawings of Tom and Jerry on tennis balls to encourage his six- year-old daughter Monica to take a swing at them.