Tennis: Hingis eyes the prize of eternal youth

Wimbledon 97: Martina Hingis became the youngest winner of a Wimbledon title in history when she won the women's doubles last summer. This year, as No 1 seed, she will be trying to become the youngest winner of the women's singles since Lottie Dod (right)hn Roberts talked to her

The youngest-ever world No 1 had completed her ration of singles and doubles matches for the afternoon and was contemplating a spot of recreation. Rollerblading, possibly, or perhaps there was a horse to ride.

"You think you've had a busy day, don't you?" your correspondent ventured.

"I've had a pretty busy one, yes," the 16-year-old Martina Hingis replied.

"Well," I said, handing the Swiss prodigy a slip of paper relating to 1887, "look what Lottie Dod had to do to win Wimbledon when she was only 15."

"I don't understand," Hingis said, giggling at the six lines of print as if they represented some hastily arranged exhibition tournament. "That was the whole draw?"

"Yes."

"That doesn't count!" The mock indignation was betrayed by laughter.

Lottie Dod, the daughter of a wealthy Cheshire cotton broker, had to negotiate only three matches in becoming the youngest Wimbledon women's singles champion at the age of 15 years and 285 days.

Only five players entered the All-Comers' Championship on that occasion. Dod, given a bye in the fist round, won two matches and was elevated to the Challenge Round, in which she defeated the title-holder, Blanche Bingley, 6-2, 6-0.

"You can keep the draw sheet if you like," I said.

"I will," Hingis replied, "so I don't get mad about her, that she was 15."

Hingis is credited with being the youngest Wimbledon champion, aged 15 years, 282 days. Try reminding her, and she interrupts, saying: "But I only won the doubles". That was last July, when Hingis was partnered by the tall, vastly experienced Helena Sukova, of the Czech Republic.

"I was thinking about it, actually, when we won the the doubles," Hingis said, "that she [Dod] was only 15 when she won the singles. How was that possible, you know, because usually the women players were much older at that time."

By all accounts, Dod was a natural athlete. After winning the Wimbledon singles title five times (a total of nine matches, only once conceding a set), she became a champion golfer, a hockey international, an Olympic silver medallist at archery, a rower, a rider, a mountaineer, a skater and a tobogganist on the Cresta Run.

Being a schoolgirl, the one important concession she was given at Wimbledon in 1887 concerned her clothing. She was allowed to play in a calf-length dress, not dissimilar to a school uniform, and did not wear a corset.

Lottie Dod, or no Lottie Dod, Hingis's triumph at the Australian Open in Melbourne in January, aged 16 years, three months and 26 days, made her the youngest winner of a major singles championship this century. In short, since tennis became an international sport.

While she does not publicly object to being described as a Slovakian- born Swiss, which is perfectly accurate, Hingis emphasises that as far as she is concerned she is Swiss.

In February she returned to her birthplace, Kosice, for the first time since she was three years old in order to play for Switzerland against Slovakia in the Fed Cup.

The visit presented a rare opportunity for her father to see her. Karol Hingis, 45, is the caretaker at a local tennis club. He and Martina's Czech mother, Melanie, 40, divorced when the child was five. By then Martina was living with her mother in Melanie's home town, Roznov.

Melanie, who has coached Martina virtually from the cradle (she named her after Martina Navratilova), married Andreas Zogg, a Swiss computer salesman. Martina has lived in Trubbach, Switzerland, since the age of seven, although her mother and Mr Zogg divorced in September last year. Melanie reverted to her maiden name, Molitor.

In common with many other teenaged champions, Hingis's formal education has tended to be more hit and miss than her tennis. Early last year, when she complained that tennis practice was boring, her mother reminded her that she could always go back to school. The complaining ceased.

She is not averse to speaking her mind, a habit which has gained her a reputation for being cocky, if not a prima donna in the making. During the French Open, for example, Hingis declared that it was her right to play on the Centre Court, because she was No 1.

Hingis has grown accustomed to global travel. She endeavours to compete to the best of her ability while not neglecting to enjoy the ambience of the contrasting locations. Paris ranks high on her list of favourites. "I also like the tournament, because my first big win at a Grand Slam was at the French Open when I was a junior. I was only 12 at that time, and that was also one of my records. I felt very confident, and I felt very happy with the city and everything."

The date was 6 June, 1993. In the course of her media interview, Hingis said she already felt "capable of playing with the big girls". Her immediate objective, however, was the junior event at Wimbledon. "Personally, I don't have any problems with the grass," she said, "even though I've never played on grass."

Her mind dictated that she would not be intimidated by the prospect. "I never had a problem changing surfaces, and I just tried to play a couple of times on grass," she recounted. "I went there on Thursday, a week before the juniors started, and made the semi-finals from the first point on, and it didn't really affect me that I hadn't played on grass.

"Everybody was saying, `Yes, it's grass, it's Wimbledon, it's a big deal'. I was thinking that it's a big tennis tournament for every player, and everybody wants to win it once, at least, and for me it was a big thing just to be there already."

Did the experience live up to expectations? "I had watched a couple of times on television, when Martina Navratilova won there, or Steffi Graf, and the atmosphere is just so different from all the other tournaments. Every Grand Slam tournament is very specific, but Wimbledon is something special."

So, too, is Hingis. As a 13-year-old, having made a successful defence of her French title, she became the youngest winner of the Wimbledon junior singles championship.

She had yet to visit the Centre Court. "Well, the juniors weren't allowed to go there, so I didn't even try it. I just watched the matches on TV. I played the finals on Court One. That was already a big deal for me, just to play there.

"The first time I actually saw the Centre Court was when I played the first time against Steffi Graf." Hingis laughed at the recollection from 1995. "That was my first match, my first loss, on Centre Court. There was a big crowd there - first round, Hingis-Graf - but it wasn't a great experience.

"It was kind of disappointing for me. I was already in the top 20, and I had to play Graf in the first round. I wasn't very happy about it. Graf is a big player on grass. You have to play her first round, and you already know about it a week before. You go like, `Oh, no way, why did it happen to me? Why do I have to play Graf?'.

"The court was like a carpet. It was as if nobody had played on that court before. I just couldn't move on it, it was so different."

Hingis played Graf on the Centre Court again last year, having advanced to the fourth round. The result was another victory for the champion in straight sets. "It was the same thing again," Hingis shrugged. "The first time I was on the Centre Court was for the match with Steffi. Well, she was the No 1 there. I'm sure I'm going to have more chances to play there.

"I think any surface is welcome for me right now, because I have a good return and the serve improves. If you are a big serve and volley player, that helps you even more. But you've got to have something to play on grass."

What Hingis brings is a precocious mastery of the ball, an innate sense of movement and strategy, and the mental capacity to maximise her potential - a formidable combination calculated to confound the sport's bigger hitters.

In common with at least two others of her generation, Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova, Hingis has the confidence to articulate in media interview rooms in a manner far in advance of the shy mutterings of Graf, Gabriela Sabatini and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario at a similar age. She speaks three languages, including English.

"You have to learn everything," Hingis said. "If your game is improving, everything [else] has to improve. What I have to learn is not just about playing tennis, but how to handle all the stuff around me. It doesn't make you No 1 just because you can rally and play tennis. Everything has to be perfect. Of course, you can't do everything perfect, but you've got to try."

And it helps if you can smile a little. "You have to enjoy the game, especially for me. It makes me very proud that I have made it to No 1. It's just the greatest feeling. That's what you work for. It makes me happy to have reached something in my life already at my young age, and to have so much more to do. I've never enjoyed playing tennis as much as I do right now. And everything else, you know."

Although liable to pout occasionally if unhappy with her performance, and given to throwing her racket when frustrated by errors, she is none the less a delight to watch and a marketing boon for her agent, Damir Keretic, who operates from the Hamburg office of Mark McCormack's International Management Group.

Her burgeoning financial fortune $3m (pounds 1.8m) in official prize-money alone, plus a tennis clothing contract worth up to $12m over five years, appears to have been taken in her stride, like the next backhand down the line. "What I'm saying all the time is, `The more money you get, the less you have to pay'. You've got so many chances to go somewhere, do something."

The question of boyfriends was raised with Hingis during a mixed tournament in Florida in March. It was put to her that although tennis is a full- time job, she was now a young woman at an age when young women tend to think about dating. Was she dating?

"Me? Well, I go to players' parties, as everybody else does. If you're travelling so much as I do, it's hard to find somebody at the tournament. You would have to go every week with someone else. That just doesn't work all the time. I think I still have time for those things. Just right now tennis is the most important thing for me."

One of the local male reporters asked, "Are there any players you particular like, male players?"

She responded, "Do you like any women players on the tour that you want to date?"

Hingis, noted for taking the ball early, is not inclined to meet problems half-way. "We'll see once it happens," she says. "The most important thing is to learn from every match. If you don't play well, you just try to get over it and play better next time."

But what about problems which may manifest outside the tennis courts? "Well, it doesn't happen to me right now, because I'm just going up, still going higher and better. OK, I can imagine a lot of things, but I can't really talk about it right at the moment because it's not happening to me."

And if something does happen? "Well, I hope I can handle it. Being with my mum is a big help to me. She's always with me on the Tour, and she's the biggest help in my tennis. I think we are a great team. She's always been a great mother to me, and a great coach."

Melanie Molitor was rated a moderate Czech player with a propensity for scurrying along the baseline, hardly a prototype for such a gifted daughter.

"You have a totally different game."

"Yes," Hingis said, smiling. "That's the way my mum taught me, because she didn't want me to be the same as she was. She tried to do everything with me, so that I can play almost every shot.

"Up to now, she has done everything right with me. She never really pushed me, but I needed a little push behind me all the time, somebody who was there for me all the time, even in bad times. In good times you don't need so many people around you, because you feel happy with yourself."

Long may the smiles continue.

THE HINGIS FACT FILE

Born: 30 September 1980, Kosice, Slovakia.

Home: Moved to Trubbach, Switzerland, aged 7.

Coach: Her mother, Melanie Molitor, who had named her Martina after Martina Navratilova, the former Czechoslovak player who later took up American citizenship.

Career record: Turned professional 14 October 1994, aged 14. Won French Open junior singles aged 12. Successfully defended French junior title and won Wimbledon junior singles aged 13.

Earnings: Has won $3m (pounds 1.8m) in official prize-money and has a tennis clothing contract worth $12m over five years.

Youngest... Wimbledon champion (15 years and 282 days), after winning the 1996 women's doubles title with Helena Sukova. (Charlotte "Lottie" Dod won the women's singles in 1887, aged 15 years and 285 days); ... Grand Slam singles champion of the century, 16 years, three months and 26, after defeating the Canadian-born Mary Pierce, of France, 6-2, 6-2, in the final of the 1997 Australian Open; ... ever world No 1, aged 16 years, six months and one day, on 31 March 1997.

Injuries: Underwent arthroscopic surgery to her left knee after falling from a horse in April 1997. Returned to competition after six weeks, losing in the final of the French Open against Iva Majoli, of Croatia, 6-4, 6- 2. This was Hingis's first defeat of the year after 40 consecutive victories.

Wimbledon singles record: Defeated by Steffi Graf, of Germany, in consecutive championships, 6-3, 6-1 in the first round in 1995 and 6-1, 6-4 in the fourth round in 1996.

HOW LOTTIE DOD WON IN 1887

Ladies' singles

First round

L Dod bye

B James bt M Shackle 8-6, 6-2

Mrs C J Cole bye

J Shackle bye

Semi-finals

Dod bt James 6-1, 6-1

Cole bt Shackle 6-4, 6-1

Final

Dod bt Cole 6-2, 6-3

Challenge round

Dod (challenger) bt B Bingley (holder)

6-2, 6-0

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