Tennis: Hingis may hold court in Brighton: Latest teenage wonder will not be short of offers after win on WTA Tour debut

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MARTINA HINGIS, the latest wunderkind, may take a wild card for the Brighton tournament on 17 October, extending her introduction to the WTA Tour to three consecutive weeks before returning her attention to the school classroom.

'There's a very strong possibility Hingis will come to Brighton,' George Hendon, the tournament director, said yesterday. 'I have had a letter from her agents (Mark McCormack's International Management Group) and I expect to know something definite tomorrow.'

Those responsible for the welfare of the 14-year-old Czech-born Swiss had to choose between adhering to a schedule which took her to Filderstadt next week, then on to Essen after a week's break, or dropping the Essen event in favour of a trip to Sussex, where Steffi Graf is the No 1 seed. They are not going to Essen.

Though the dilemmas of precocity would appear to have surfaced already, it is possible in this instance to take the charitable view that an earlier resumption of Hingis's education is one of the prime considerations.

As one of the last 14-year-olds to join the tour before the new-age eligibility rules begin to take affect in January, Hingis is permitted to play 12 tournaments before her 15th birthday. First impressions suggest she will not be short of offers.

Having upstaged Martina Navratilova on Tuesday night, Hingis came close to edging the Princess of Wales off the front pages of the local tabloids yesterday. Such had been the teenager's poise in marking her WTA Tour debut on Tuesday night with a 6-4, 6-3 victory against Patty Fendick, a 29-year-old American ranked No 45 in the world, that one was inclined to suppress the thought that young Hingis, like our Diana, may come to discover that the glare of the spotlight can be constant and cruel.

So far, so good. The junior champion of Wimbledon and the French Open, who today faces Mary Pierce, the No 2 seed, passed her initial test of intense public scrutiny impressively, dealing efficiently with an aggressive opponent whose determination frequently resulted in errors.

Hingis also achieved a subtle success against peer pressure. Twenty of the 32 players in the singles draw at the European Indoor Championships watched, keen of eye, from the courtside, most of them grouped together in the WTA Tour box.

Fendick frequently glanced their way, particularly early in the match after taking a 2-0 lead, breaking the youngster's serve in the opening game. It was almost as if she had been assigned to test drive a new vehicle. Hingis, while acutely conscious of the critical gazes, endeavoured to ignore them. At the same time, she was cute enough to make eye contact with her opponent after hitting a winning shot.

Jennifer Capriati was introduced to the professional ranks four years ago as the new Chris Evert, a comparison based on her baseline style, Florida upbringing and the fact that Evert's father, Jimmy, was on of her early coaches.

From the outset, Capriati's play was generated by raw power. Hingis, although predominantly a backcourt player, has finesse to complement potent groundstrokes. The range of her cool, elegant play against Fendick incorporated some splendid volleys and the perfomance was underpinned by good anticipation, which countered Fendick's supposed superiority on a fast carpet court. All of which moved many observers to evoke Evert's name again.

Navratilova was among them. 'She has a lot more in common with Chris than with me where her game's concerned,' the nine-times Wimbledon champion said after watching the Hingis match on television. 'The only thing she's got in common with me is being of Czech origin and my name. She's very good for her age but she's been groomed for that, as were the others. Whether she can look forward to longevity is something else.'

It must not be overlooked that Capriati achieved astonishing early success, advancing to Grand Slam singles semi-finals and defeating Graf to win Olympic gold in Barcelona before enthusiasm gave way to disaffection and despair.

Hingis's baptism provoked mixed feelings. 'At 14,' Fendick said, 'she's much more mature than a lot of players are and she's certainly better than the girls her age.' Perhaps, but desperate though the women's game is for fresh talent, it might be healthier for all concerned if progress in this case is steady rather than spectacular. Pierce also turned professional at 14. 'My game was at a level which enabled me to compete,' she said, 'but it would have been better if I'd stayed in school and not played as many tournamants.'

Her mother-cum-coach, Melanie Hingis-Zogg, has no qualms about the attention her daughter is attracting. 'She's an actress,' she said. 'She loves it.'

Ah, yes, but early days. . .

(Photograph omitted)