Tennis: Hingis plays hit and giggle

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TAKE THE time to visit a Martina Hingis press conference and you are struck by something different. Giggles, I think you call them, it is so hard to remember in an environment where so many of the leading ladies are labouring through a morass of difficulties.

"I made it tough for myself." Giggle. "It wasn't an outstanding performance from my side." Snigger. "Maybe tomorrow is a better day." Guffaw. What is wrong with the girl? Doesn't she know that playing tennis is supposed to be a deeply traumatic business?

She only has to ask Steffi Graf, Monica Seles or Jennifer Capriati to explore the darker side of hitting a ball over a net. Tennis, or rather the side issues that come with it, can be next door to hell if not actually in it.

Gladly, at 17, Hingis is unaffected by the strains of being a tennis player upon whom expectation is piled in layers. Off court she is a young girl having fun; on court... well, she is so good, the fact that her mind wanders usually does not matter.

Usually. The French Open was the exception. Faced by Venus Williams, an 18-year-old seemingly placed on this earth with a mission to displace Hingis at the top of the women's game, the Swiss girl was magnificent. There she won a hard, straight- sets victory, the sort that sends a message to both participants.

In the next match, against Monica Seles, whom Hingis had beaten five times in succession, the motivation was not there. She knew she could beat her. Except this was a Seles who was fired by the death of her father to do something significant. Exit Hingis. This time the natural talent could not compensate for complacency.

In a minor scale the same sub-plot has been played out at Wimbledon. Hingis lost sleep over her first match against the world No 19, Lisa Raymond, and sailed past relatively untroubled. In the second round she began so poorly against Elena Makarova that her normally garrulous mother, Melanie Molitor, was red-faced and silent.

"I was a little bit surprised by the way she played," Hingis said. "She didn't miss one first serve in the first couple of games and she was very fast. She could hold on to the speed of my game and I tried to hit it harder and harder and the balls were flying all over the place."

The real problem was not Makarova, it was Hingis. Sometimes she is brilliant, sometimes the feet are static and she is about as mobile as the wax dummy of her likeness being built by Madame Tussaud's, to be unveiled in London by the end of the summer (the only other tennis players on show, by the way, are Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova).

Yet this is a girl - woman is hardly the right word for someone so young - who already has four Grand Slam tournaments in her locker and who would have had the complete set if she had not fallen at the semi-final stage against Seles in Paris. Just as "woman" is an inappropriate term for Hingis, "brilliant" is also somehow an insufficient description.

Last year she became the youngest Wimbledon champion in the Open era - 16 years, nine months, five days - almost by accident. She wanted to win of course, but she did not expect to. She was a girl who had been brought up on clay: grass was alien. It was a shock when she realised that she was beat- ing Jana Novotna in the final.

"I was happy to reach the quarters, the semis," she said. "All of a sudden I was in the final, playing Novotna. I didn't expect to do so well at Wimbledon, I kept saying, `I don't really like playing on grass', but I kept winning.

"This time there's more pressure. I know I can play on the surface and I really want to do well. Now I'm the favourite. [Anna] Kournikova is not in, [Mary] Pierce has lost and nobody knew what was going to happen with Steffi [Graf]. It feels quite different."

She finished by saying it felt good to be in such a position. Like Graf and Navratilova the expectation seems to propel her to a higher plane. Pile on the pressure. She loves it.

"It doesn't worry me," she said, as she prepared to meet Elena Likhovtseva today. "A newspaper said that 65 per cent of people expected me to win the French Open. I didn't, but it wasn't too bad."

She can cope. Life is a giggle.