Tennis: Hingis has to handle the growing pain

Ronald Atkin talks to a psychologist about Martina's curious outbursts
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The Independent Online
MARTINA HINGIS won't be 19 for another three and a half months but she came of age dramatically eight days ago in the furnace of the French Open final. The girl Women's Tennis Association officials like to refer to as the "can't-miss Swiss" ended up missing by a mile after reaching out over-confidently for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. The tantrums and tears brought the vilification of that renowned guillotine bunch, a Parisian crowd, and the reprimands of the world's media.

After a week of rest and reflection Hingis will ease back into action by playing only in the doubles event with that other high-profile teenager Anna Kournikova at Eastbourne this week, but if she thinks the spotlight will thus be dodged she is mistaken.

A world No 1 is never out of the glare, especially when given to comments like calling the muscular Amelie Mauresmo "half a man" or acts like severing her doubles partnership with Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna because she felt the Czech was "too old" at 30. The Paris spectacular was Hingis's third blunder of the year, so what on earth is going on? Since sport now benefits from people qualified to explain, let's hear from them.

Jim Loehr, of the Florida organisation LGE Performance Systems Inc, is America's foremost sports psychologist. "This is something I see in a lot of sports," he said. "We have younger and younger athletes attaining remarkable professional levels of skills and if they are champions we expect them to be impeccable in their demeanour and graciousness.

"What Martina did simply reflects the fact that she is a very young girl in whom maturity and development are not complete. When you have won so much and haven't experienced a tremendous amount of adversity and failure along the way you just assume success will be there again. We expect Tiger Woods and all of the young superstars to be gracious and mature and when they aren't we are very tough on them.

"We see John McEnroe's imperfections well into his later adulthood and were more tolerant of something like that, which is kind of mysterious. We came to expect if from John, we don't expect it from Martina because she has always presented an image of grace and demeanour. But if people saw from the inside the challenge and pressure of being No1 they would be more understanding. There is such a host of outstanding challengers emerging that Martina has to feel the heat, and that intensifies her sense of unease until she feels she has to do something. All the dimensions of her game have to be examined now, otherwise she is going to lose the No 1 spot."

Hingis's mother, Melanie Molitor, has always been her coach and as Dr Loehr pointed out: "It is hard to separate being a parent and a coach, it gets very messy. Melanie has done a pretty good job walking the tightrope but as Martina gets more independent she will want to seek her own people who she feels comfortable with. There may be a lot of trauma before that."

For the moment, Melanie's presence seems enough. It was in her mother's arms that Hingis sought solace in Paris moments after an incident when the player was reported to have pushed a WTA communications girl who told her she should go back on court for the presentations. Having viewed a video of the matter, the WTA chief executive, Bart McGuire, said: "The incident was extremely minor and is not something we are going to pursue."

McGuire has written to Hingis but declined to divulge the letter's contents. Of her fine for unsportsmanlike behaviour in crossing to her opponent Steffi Graf's side of the net to query a call, McGuire added: "I view it less as lack of sportsmanship than lack of competitive judgement. She made an issue of a point which gave Steffi several minutes to recompose herself and turn the crowd, already sympathetic to Graf, even more solidly against her. All of that was surprising to me.

"Martina is an absolutely wonderful competitor but she does need to work on bringing out her positive and attractive side. It is disappointing to have the No 1 perceived publicly as negatively as many people did."

A British therapist who watched the final and who declined to be identified, said: "What was so fascinating was the body language. Hingis's histrionic stuff and childish tant-rums. 'Mummy, please come and sort out these bad people for me.' Hingis had turned into this whingeing baby and Graf had no pity at all. That is how you win Grand Slams. Sport at the top level is about being totally in control of your emotions and trying to freak out your opponent."

Which brings us back to McEnroe. John Syer of the London company Sporting Bodymind said: "If a player gets involved in things other than actually winning the point it can become a distraction. That was when the French final turned around for Hingis. John McEnroe could do all sorts of things between points and then bring his attention right back to the next point.

"The other thing Hingis does is the bathroom break. A few years ago nobody did that but it has become a ploy. She not only left the court, she changed her dress and had her hair done. If you've had a busy day you go to the bathroom and realise, 'God, I should have done this, that or the other'.

"Removing yourself from a situation allows a wider perspective. The break can also cause your opponent's mind to lose momentum, so it comes under the heading of gamesmanship. This has become so much part of the game that players need to integrate it in terms of mental training to be able to deal with it."

All in all, the doubles event at Eastbourne this week could be rather more interesting than usual.