Tennis: Hingis cast as Slam dancer

Chris Bowers says the new world No 1 can dominate game for a long time
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The Independent Online
For several years the world's top women players have assembled at Roland Garros with a clear favourite for the title in their midst. But it is not every year that poll position is occupied by a 16-year-old.

Martina Hingis will not be 17 until 30 September, and according to Swiss law cannot take her driving test for another 16 months, which is galling given that she picked up a Porsche for winning in Filderstadt last October. But she is without question the one to beat on the red clay, and it is hard to see where her next defeat will come from.

Hingis is unbeaten in 32 matches this year, which have given her six titles, including the Australian Open. Only once has she looked like getting beaten (Monica Seles took her to a 7-5 final set tie-break in Hilton Head), and such a run of form builds up an aura of near invincibility that can sometimes win matches by itself by instilling doubts into opponents.

The key to her success is not readily apparent. She does not have the obvious athleticism of Martina Navratilova, the lethal forehand of Steffi Graf or the sheer power of Seles, but she is always there, moving with supreme efficiency of energy around the court, finding passing shots where none seems available, and winning the most important points.

The only barrier this year has been her love of horses. Out riding on 21 April, she jumped a fence her horse didn't, and the world No 1 was tossed to the ground. At first she thought nothing of it, but she woke the next morning to find the knee badly swollen, and it transpired she had a small tear in the cruciate ligament. That forced her to miss the European spring clay-court tournaments, but she is now back on court, and played an exhibition match for Yannick Noah's children's charity two days ago.

Her top rivals have different ways of saying the same thing: that they don't quite know how to beat her. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the French Open finalist of the last two years and seeded only six this year, said: "She has a very mixed game; she doesn't just have one way of playing." Seles said: "She has every angle, and really great disguise on the backhand." Navratilova added: "She has all the shots and great court sense."

In 1991 and 1992, Seles came to Paris as the one to beat, and would have done so in '93 had she not been stabbed in Hamburg just three weeks before the tournament. In the last four years, Graf has been the target, and there are those who feel that a ranking system that puts Hingis at No 1 when Graf holds three of the four Grand Slam titles is out of sync with the highlights of the tennis year. Yet the fact is that Graf has been largely absent from the circuit this year. She played four matches at the Australian Open, then three in Tokyo a week later, before pulling out of the final (where she was due to meet Hingis) with a knee injury - she only returned to tournament tennis 12 days ago. In Graf's absence, Hingis won everything she contested and took over the No 1 slot on 31 March. "People say Steffi is No 1 but if she's not around, they shouldn't be surprised if I become No 1," said Hingis with her trademark disarming smile that makes it hard to find her arrogance offensive.

With Seles still trying to rediscover her 1993 form and Graf short of match practice after her three-month lay-off, it is difficult to see anyone other than Hingis taking the Suzanne Lenglen Cup a week on Saturday. In fact it is hard to see anyone beating Hingis at all in her present form, and the Grand Slam looks a possibility.

In the history of women's tennis only three players have achieved the Grand Slam (all four majors in one calendar year): Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970, and Graf in 1988 (Navratilova won six on the run in 1983-84 but never all four in the same year). With Australia already behind her, the French being played on her best surface, and the US Open on a surface similar to the Australian, Hingis's only weak link appears to be Wimbledon. There is no question she can play on grass - she won the girls' singles at 13 - but much will depend on Graf's form.

A 16-year-old doing the Grand Slam would certainly put women's tennis into the headlines, but it may not be the best thing to hit the sport. Having introduced stricter age limits two years ago to reduce the risk of teenage girls burning out, the women's tour must be concerned that Hingis's success inevitably questions the legitimacy of those restrictions. Indeed Hingis's rival from junior days Anna Kournikova, who turns 16 in two weeks, recently attacked the rules..

To their credit, the Corel WTA Tour have resisted calls for a relaxation. Their explanation is that, while Hingis avoided the rules because they came in just after her 14th birthday, she has conducted her first two years on the circuit with the kind of common-sense approach the tour wish to promote. Nevertheless, they must be hoping she does not conquer all this year because it isn't always easy to get the message across that the young Hingis is a phenomenon.