Tennis: Hingis prepares to come of age: A prodigy is set to carry her dominance into senior tennis. Simon O'Hagan reports

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The Independent Online
FOR students of women's tennis, 1994 will go down as one of those years when eras seem to be beginning and ending in front of your very eyes. For as the sport bids farewell to Martina Navratilova, so it welcomes Martina Hingis, the Czech-born Swiss prodigy named after Navratilova and widely tipped to emulate her achievements. History is seldom so neat.

So remarkable have been Hingis's feats as a junior that when she makes her debut on the senior tour in the Zurich Open this week, nobody could argue, from a strictly sporting point of view, that her elevation has come too soon. For the last two years she has been beating girls as much as six years older than her, becoming, at 12, the youngest ever winner of a Grand Slam junior title when she took the 1993 French Open. She won it again this year, added the Wimbledon title, and finished runner-up at last month's US Open. No junior has ever been so dominant, so young.

None the less, the 'burn- out' syndrome that has cost the careers of numerous women players who started out when they had hardly stopped being children means that there must inevitably be clouds in the sky above Hingis as well as sunshine. Jennifer Capriati, due to return to action in Zurich after her drug problems but who pulled out of the tournament last week and, it was announced yesterday, next week's Filderstadt event, is only the latest to become part of that troubled tradition.

Mindful of what can befall teenage girls thrust into the highly pressurised and in many ways artificial world of professional tennis, the Women's Tennis Council has decided to raise the minimum age for entry to senior tournaments to 16 - but it will take another two years for it to become effective.

For now it remains at 14, and Hingis has wasted no time before making the step up, having celebrated her 14th birthday only on Friday. Talents like hers cannot be held back, and any suggestion that she is being pushed too hard is rejected both by her and the people closest to her, chiefly her mother and coach, Melanie Hingis-Zogg, a former Czech professional, and her agent-cum-hitting partner Damir Keretic, a representative of Mark McCormack's International Management Group.

'Sure, I'm ready,' she said yesterday after the draw in Zurich had given her a first-round match against Patty Fendick, the American ranked No 41 in ther world. 'It will be like any other normal match.'

IMG know a good thing when they see it, and signed up Hingis last year. Beyond a general air of quiet composure, a Hingis 'image' has yet to be formed, but the marketability of success alone means that the millions are heading her way.

She is a high achiever academically, and to the approval of everyone within the game intends to fit tennis round school rather than the other way round, thus helping root her life. She is also accomplished in riding, skiing and basketball. The phenomenon that is Hingis is all the more remarkable for her having suffered more than her share of upheaval. Her parents having divorced when she was six, she moved to Switzerland when her mother re-married, and had to learn a new language.

What makes her so special as a tennis player? She is a right-hander who, to look at, you would not think a very serious proposition. At 5ft 4in and just under 8st, she does not seem strong enough to cope in the age of the power game, and even though she benefits like anybody else from the latest racket technology, the racket looks unwieldy in her hands.

All this is deceptive, though. She has instinctive timing, but even more impressive are the things she has had to learn - shot placement, tactics, how to dictate rallies and move opponents about the court who are invariably bigger and stronger.

'It is amazing to see a junior with such an all-round game,' Keretic says. 'She can play from the net as well as from the back of the court and she has great technical command.' Her adaptability was shown at last year's Wimbledon when, playing on grass for the first time, she reached the semi-finals.

Signs of brittleness are hard to detect. There is nothing manufactured about her - unlike, say, Tracy Austin or Andrea Jaeger, 14-year-olds who trod a similar path before Hingis and found that it led into the wilderness. Hingis is ordered, but not robotic, and when things go wrong is more likely to become merely puzzled than frustrated. She goes about her work so quietly, calmly and efficiently that there is little sense of her even imposing her will on an opponent.

No doubt life will not always seem so easy, but it is almost as important for the women's game in general as it is for Hingis herself that when the crises come she has the ability to cope.

(Photograph omitted)