Tennis: Hingis and mother: perfect partners

John Roberts meets a double act determined to keep the Wimbledon champion and World No 1 ahead of the game
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MARTINA HINGIS, the 17-year-old Wimbledon champion, cannot remember a time when she was not playing tennis. "My mother told me I was two years old, but when she was pregnant at six months she won a tournament with me. So I was unborn and already had that feeling of tennis.

"And you were already a doubles champion," your correspondent ventured. Hingis laughed. Her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, corrected the statement. "It was not a doubles tournament, it was a singles tournament."

The most amazing mother and daughter tennis team of the century is preparing to launch another campaign at the All England Club following a year of triumph that was so rudely interrupted last Thursday on the red clay of the French Open in Paris.

An inspired Monica Seles overwhelmed Hingis in the semi-finals, 6-3, 6-2, halting her quest to complete a collection of the four Grand Slam singles titles and setting a compelling scene for the Wimbledon lawns a fortnight hence. Seles is likely to be joined there by Steffi Graf, the champion on seven occasions, who appears to have recovered from a series of injuries.

"Wimbledon every year is always something very special, because it's the most important tournament in the world," Melanie said. "It's always a test. If it works correctly in practice, everything will be fine."

Melanie Molitor's commonsense approach has confounded the perception that casts tennis parents as coaches from hell who would lock up their teenage daughters rather than expose them to the dangers of the professional game. Hingis appears remarkably well-balanced considering her astonishing rise to fame and wealth from the background of a broken home.

Born in Kosice, Slovakia, and raised in Roznov, in the Czech Republic, before moving to Switzerland with her mother and stepfather at the age of seven, Hingis speaks warmly of her mother's guidance. "She's not only my mother and my coach but she's also my friend, like an older sister. I can talk to her about everything."

Melanie, 41, and Martina ski together and rollerblade together. In common with many working relationships, however, theirs has experienced stress and strain. "The most difficult part is not on the tennis court," Melanie said, "but life off the tennis court." Her daughter has even talked about having a change from playing tennis. "Martina has that feeling many times."

"Two or three years ago we had a problem," Hingis said. "I didn't say that I wasn't going to play, I just didn't play that well. Actually, when I think back, there's nothing I've wanted to do since I was born but play tennis.

"I think every teenager goes through a stage of thinking, 'Why should I do this or that?' Nobody really wants to go to school, but you have to. So I suppose it's the same with me. I didn't go to school anymore, so I felt, 'Well, why should I play tennis?' I think everybody has a problem, whatever they do, but when you're well known it just comes up a little bit quicker. In a normal family it happens also, but I would say nobody knows about it. With me, the whole world knew.

"As soon as I started working on myself and practised a little bit more I had success right there, so I would be pretty stupid if I didn't continue to do the same thing."

Melanie continues to coax. "When I miss a ball, every bad shot, she is always is there. She knows when I do something wrong. Well, by now, I know it also. She's the one who keeps telling me, and that's good, that's the coach's job. You always have disagreements, also in the family, but most of the the time, well, I'm No 1 in the world, so there is nothing we have to change.

"Mum always wants to be perfect. I am sometimes the laid back type, not always on time. Whenever I have a little problem, and especially when I get to the semis or finals, she kind of takes it a little bit easier, because I get a little bit tired at the end. And she's always the person who pushes me into doing some work on myself. That's very good for me, because without her I couldn't be where I am."

For Melanie, as well as for her daughter, flexibility is imperative. "Martina is the No 1 player in the world today. This proves that she has her ideas, too. So even I, as the mother and the coach, have to adapt a little bit. In the beginning I was treating Martina like a child, and now as an adult, that's the difference. I have accepted her as a player today. I treat her like a player on the court, but sometimes it is quite difficult to make a difference between the coach and the mother."

Competition from her peers helps to galvanise Hingis. Her chief rivals among the rising generation, the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, the Russian Anna Kournikova, and the Croat Mirjana Lucic, endeavour to outshine each other in every way. As Hingis emphasised, "If you have a look at Anna, or Venus, or Mirjana, they are all different and they are all very feminine. They all want to look pretty on the court as well as being good players."

The cover story of a recent issue of GQ magazine provided Hingis with a surprisingly raunchy image. "'The Champ is a Vamp!' I liked the title, and I liked the pictures, too. I was there all day. When they put on the make up they spent 45 minutes just on one eye."

And the champ has developed a relationship with Senor Julian Alonso. "Ah, Senor!" Hingis gave a little laugh. From early in the year, photographers have been snapping her out together with the 20-year-old Spanish player, whose results have tended to decline. Does the attention bother her? "Well, it's not really that. He's a good friend, and I think more or less it's just between me and him. We're in the beginning, so I don't really know how it's going to work it. Everybody has to go through that stage one day."

Melanie divorced her second husband, Andreas Zogg, a Swiss computer salesman, almost two years ago [Martina's father, Karol Hingis, 46, still lives in Slovakia]. Mother and daughter have Swiss homes in Trubbach and Regensdorf, a 10-minute drive from Zurich airport, and one in the Czech Republic, where Martina has glowing memories of her early years.

"I just loved it. I didn't want to have anything else other than what I had there. We had a small apartment, which I liked, and we were always out at the courts playing tennis. We had fun.

"When I was three years old I could play like 300 times over the net already. And then at four there was my first tournament [in Roznov]. I lost 12-0. I don't remember that any more, though I know that something happened. I could count. I knew always where I had to stand and where I had to be, where I had to serve, what to do. That girl was so mean, she didn't want to give me one game. Every game was close. I was 30-all and made a mistake probably. The age group was up to nine. She was eight or nine.

"I started playing those tournaments more and more, and when I was six or seven I started beating everybody up to nine. I just had a great life out there. There were always like 40 kids on the grounds. It was like a whole big family playing together, kids and men and women, like one big community. It was one of the three big tennis camps in the country, the one for juniors. They were all of the best kids in the Czech Republic."

Did she recall the moment she first held a racket? "No, because I was so small. I suppose it was like a toy. I just grew up on the courts. I was always there. Other kids play in front of the house, I would go to the courts with my mum all the time, and when she practised I was always there. When I came back home after five or six hours standing on the tennis court, I would grab the racket and I would play on the door or on the wall in the apartment. I was crazy."

Was mother a good player? "Well, she was in the top 20 in the Czech Republic, so she was pretty good. She had a great life with tennis, until I was born." She smiled. "She was a baseliner, never came to the net. She didn't have a great forehand, so she wanted me to have an all-round game so that I didn't fear anything out on the court, that I could just play everything, and come in and probably play a little bit like Navratilova."

Hingis was not named Martina by coincidence. "Well, I don't have the mentality to play like Navratilova, like being always at the net. I don't think in today's tennis you can do it anymore, because the women are not fast enough or just can't cover the court that well. It's just that before everything was slower."

Along with tennis, and an occasional football kick-about, she developed a passion for horse riding. "The first time I sat on a horse I was four years old. They just put me on so that they could take a picture. I could ride a pony. The horse was just too big for me. When I was 11 we went on holiday to Italy and there was nothing to do but ride horses because it was already September and the sea was cold and it was raining."

Did she remember her mother working about the house? "My grandmother and grandfather were still alive, so sometimes we would go there and have lunch. When I was six or seven, before we moved to Switzerland, we stayed with my grandmother for a year. She just did everything for me. My grandfather would work so that I could play tennis."

How difficult had it been to adjust to life in Switzerland? "Nobody likes to go to a different country where you don't know what to expect. I couldn't speak German at all. For three months I didn't go to school, because I had to learn at least a little bit first. Then they had the school holidays, so for almost half a year I was not at school. But I went to the second grade right after. They at first wanted to put me in the first class, but I said, 'No way'.

"In the beginning I would go back home and my mother would ask me what I had done at school. 'I don't know,' I would say. I wasn't very happy to go to school, because I couldn't speak the language and didn't know what they were saying. But after three months I understood everything, and half a year later nobody could tell that I wasn't Swiss."

Her English continues to improve. "A couple of years ago, when I played just a couple of tournaments, I would go home and work with a private teacher, two hours a day. The rest of the year I would pick it up at the tournaments. English is the language of tennis."

Did Melanie feel that she had made considerable personal sacrifices for the sake of her daughter's career? "It was always a very interesting part of my life working with Martina and playing with Martina, and I never felt I made a sacrifice of my life."

At this point, Melanie chided Mario Widmer, her companion and interpreter. "OK," Mario said. "Melanie is angry because I was not translating everything. She said she never met somebody like me, so maybe that's why she never felt she made a sacrifice."