Tennis: Hingis has full set in her sights

French Open: Swiss miss is no longer the carefree kind as she and her mother leave nothing to chance
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The Independent Online
Edward Lawrence

in Paris reports on the

No 1 player keen to

reinforce her position

THE progress so far, it must be said, has been regal. Three matches played, all won so convincingly that only 11 games have been conceded, Martina Hingis is serenely on course at the French Open to scoop up the one Grand Slam title that has so far escaped her. And the young lady is not even 18 yet.

The going will certainly become rockier, particularly if the eagerly awaited quarter-final against Venus Williams becomes reality after they both play their fourth-round matches today. If she collects the Suzanne Lenglen Cup on Saturday Hingis will be in possession of all four Grand Slams, the first since Steffi Graf 10 years ago.

The Paris buses might be bearing huge images of Anna Kournikova and the majority of camera lenses might also be pointed in the direction of the blonde Russian but Hingis is the one on whom the attention will really focus this week as she bids for the full hand of Grand Slams.

Perhaps because the going has not yet been overly demanding, Hingis has also found time in Paris to indulge in what has recently become one of her favourite pastimes - putting the opposition firmly in their place.

How does she get on with Kournikova, someone wanted to know the other day. "I talk to Anna," said Hingis. "We practised together once. It's no problem for me. If she wants to talk to me, she can. If not, I don't care because I'm at the top." End of discussion.

This is all part of the packaging of Hingis done by her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, and those around her. The glossy magazine pictures, even the new boyfriend, the Spanish player Julian Alonso, seem to be part of the package. Gone is the carefree teenager who thought so little of her preparations for the French last year that she went riding, fell off her horse and had to have a knee operation. The recuperative time spent on the sidelines and her lack of top- level fitness were eventually what combined to bring down Hingis at the final hurdle of the 1997 French Open. This time nothing is being left to chance. "I'm definitely ready," she insists.

Not that riding has been set aside. Far from it. "I am always going to keep horse riding because it's my passion," she said. "It's good for relaxation but I'm just going to be more careful."

Relaxation is a key factor in the preparations of the world number one as the pace hots up among those jostling to snatch that ranking from her. But Hingis remains serenely confident of seeing them all off, adamant that the competition is no closer than it was a year ago. "I'm 3,000 points ahead in the rankings," she said. "Everybody has improved but so have I. I'm a little better than I was last year. But the competition is tough, for sure, if you are not ready."

Having walked through the gates of Roland Garros 12 months back bearing an unbeaten 37-0 playing record, Hingis is a mite cautious about this year's statistics of 35 wins and four losses. Those losses, two to Venus Williams, one to Lindsay Davenport and one to Kournikova, came, she insists, either because she was not properly prepared or was tired.

Not prepared when she crashed to defeat in her first outing of 1998, beaten by Williams in Sydney. Tired when she lost to Davenport in the Tokyo final, to Williams in the Key Biscayne semi-finals, and to Kournikova in the Berlin quarter-finals. "I was only 50 per cent prepared in Sydney so I played only 50 per cent of my capability. Perhaps you will notice that I won my next tournament, which was the Australian Open and much more important.

"By the end of last year I was pretty much tired out because I had won 12 tournaments. Not too many people expected me to play that well, and for sure I played too much tennis. Then there was the knee injury. Sometimes I couldn't practice the way I did before the injury because I couldn't put my full weight on the knee. So I had to be much more careful than I am right now.

"Last year everything was new and I wanted to see and do everything. I didn't want to miss any of the big tournaments. I signed up for all of them so I felt I had to play them. This year my schedule has been planned more carefully so that I don't risk playing too much."

An indication that Hingis has crossed that fine line three times this year came with the Tokyo loss immediately after her Australian Open triumph, defeat in Florida in the week following her spectacular victory at Indian Wells, and then the straight-sets loss to Kournikova in Berlin, the last of three punishing weeks in succession on European clay as part of the build-up to Paris.

"Last year, for instance, I played matches in a Czech league right after the US Open. But I wouldn't do that again, for sure. I also played in places like Leipzig and other indoor tournaments when I wasn't 100 per cent fit, even though I still won some of them. Now I am one year older and a bit stronger which I need because every match tends to be physically demanding. Everybody is trying to get me off the top and I have to say that sometimes it is better to be the hunter than the hunted one. This is the most important year of my career because I have so many titles to defend and every loss I suffer is regarded as a bad one, no matter who I lose to, because I'm number one."

Number one is a phrase that Hingis likes to roll around in her conversations and it is a standing which she protects jealously. When Venus Williams aired the opinion in the spring that she and her sister Serena were on course to become the world's numbers one and two Hingis promptly retorted: "Maybe when I'm not playing anymore." She also sought Venus out to reprimand her for such a comment and the American was so taken aback that she took refuge in the age-old excuse that she had been misquoted.

If that quarter-final comes to pass this week it will be their fourth collision this year. Two wins to Williams, one to Hingis so far. Number four could be the highlight of the French Open.