Tennis: Precocious Hingis sets alarm bells ringing: A 14-year-old makes her women's tour debut on Monday but is another Capriati or another Graf in the making? John Roberts reports

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The Independent Online
MARTINA HINGIS lives with her mother and stepfather in an apartment above the fire station in the Swiss village of Trubbach. Perhaps the alarm bells ought to be sounding. The world's leading junior female player was 14 yesterday, the coming of age for professionalism until new legislation gradually closes the door to under- 16s during the course of the next two years.

At noon today, Hingis will make the draw for the dollars 750,000 ( pounds 490,000) European Indoors tournament in Zurich, where she is due to make her WTA Tour debut next week. Her career is being launched close to home, as was the case with Jennifer Capriati at Boca Raton, Florida, in 1990, when the American was given special dispensation to join the tour 23 days before her 14th birthday.

Many imagined then that the lessons had been learned and that Capriati would be able to avoid the stresses and strains which had curtailed the careers of previous prodigies, notably Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger. Four years later, a shocking portrait of the haggard, 18-year-old Capriati from the files of the Miami police provided graphic evidence of how wrong so many had been.

Earlier this week, Capriati, who is preparing to make a comeback after a year's absence, a month of which was spent in a drugs rehabilitation centre, revealed that she had wanted to kill herself.

In March, 1990, as Capriati smiled her way to the final in Boca Raton, Ted Tinling, the sage of the women's game, said: 'If there is a god of tennis, he's given Jennifer Capriati to America.' In view of what transpired following two prosperous seasons, it is tempting to suggest that if there is a god of tennis, he should ensure that success eludes Hingis until she is sufficiently experienced and mature to deal with all it entails.

When the proposals of the Women's Tennis Council's age eligibility commission were announced during the United States Open recently, a list of the major stresses on young competitors, based on numerous testimonies, many by players, was published. The top six stresses, in order, were: parents and family; travel; loneliness; media; competition; agents.

Stefano Capriati, who attempted to combine the roles of father and coach, agreed with the consensus four years ago that it was probably a blessing that his daughter had lost her initial final against Gabriela Sabatini, the top seed and world No 3. 'She can go now and play quiet tennis,' he said, endeavouring to make the correct responses but grossly underestimating the situation, particularly since millions of dollars in endorsements had already been invested in his daughter, and millions more could be won.

While expressing a desire for Jennifer to become a top player, he said he did not wish her to rush to No 1 or No 2 in the rankings. 'I just want to see her get experience and enjoy the game. I don't want to see her right away under pressure. I tell her, 'First of all, you are my daughter'.'

With this in mind, your correspondent ventured to suggest that Stefano should try to ensure that Jennifer remained happy. 'If I'm happy, she's happy,' he said. Perhaps this was a slip of the tongue and he really meant to express the priorities the other way round.

Hingis was born in Kosice, in the former Czechoslovakia, where her father still lives. Her parents divorced when she was six. Her mother remarried, to Andreas Zogg, a Swiss computer salesman, and five years ago they moved to Trubbach, less than a mile from the border with Liechtenstein.

Named Martina after the great Navratilova, Hingis first won the French Open junior singles title at 12 and nominated Monica Seles as her favourite player. Since then, she has advanced sufficiently to explain that she does not need an idol and nor is she modelling her game on anybody else's style.

She is coached by her mother, Melanie, who relates to Navratilova not merely as an admirer but as a contemporary, once good enough to be ranked in the top 20 in Czechoslovakia. The pair were reacquainted in December last year, when Navratilova frowned upon seeing her young namesake participating in an exhibition tournament in Cap d'Agde as a substitute for an injured French player, Nathalie Tauziat.

'Thirteen? That scares me,' Navratilova said. 'I hate children of that age doing nothing but hit tennis balls.' Melanie assured her that her daughter hit tennis balls for no more than six hours per week while practising, and that she was encouraged to pursue other sporting activities, such as horse-riding, swimming and skiing.

The conversation may be continued in Zurich next week. Navratilova, who will be 38 on 18 October, is due to compete as part of her farewell year on the tour; on this occasion playing autumn to Hingis's spring.

Navratilova's general interest in the welfare of the women's game has become a responsibility since her recent election to the presidency of the WTA Tour Players' Association. The nine-times Wimbledon champion's longevity is unlikely to be repeated, her unprecedented success evolving steadily after her first appearance at the All England Club in 1973, four months before her 17th birthday.

Steffi Graf, the world No 1, also served an apprenticeship of sorts. Though a mere 13 and four months when she first received a ranking (second only to the American, Stephanie Rehe, who was 13 and two months), Graf was 16 when she reached her first Grand Slam semi- final, at the 1985 US Open.

'Speaking for myself, I think it was the right decision,' the 25- year-old German said. 'When I was 12 and 13 years old, I had no competition in the juniors any more. At 12, I already played women's tournaments in Germany, and the natural way for me was to go out and play international tennis. In a way, I was good, but in another way I wasn't strong enough, like Jennifer, for example, to get to the semis in the big tournaments. I had to go through small tournaments, and I had to lose quite a lot. So for me it was definitely the right decision, just because I wasn't as ready as maybe some other juniors are now.'

Even before Capriati hit a ball on the tour, she was dressed and shod for the court by Diadora and wielded rackets on behalf of Prince. Companies such as Nike, Head and Reebok are reportedly showing an interested in her comeback. Hingis already has a clothing and shoe deal with Tacchini and a contract for Yonex rackets. In common with Capriati, she is represented by the omnipresent Mark McCormack's International Management Group.

IMG assigned Damir Keretic, a former German Davis Cup player, to work with Hingis, and he also acts as her interpreter. Why does his young client believe that her career will take a happier course than Capriati's?

'She says she can't really judge. She doesn't know Jennifer. From what she hears, there might have been problems in the family, and she also says that she's only starting right now and she thinks that the pressure on the players in Europe is not as big as maybe the pressure on the players in the United States.'

Is her mother concerned or frightened about what happened to Capriati? 'We've spoken about that lots of times,' Keretic said, 'and she's not frightened. She feels they come from different backgrounds and feels they're doing everything in a healthy way.'

Was there family pressure to persuade Hingis to turn professional? 'She (Martina) says there's no pressure. Her mum is her coach and her friend and the person that's practising with her. And she says her mum is the person that can judge the best whether she's ready to play and who she's ready to play. And she trusts her judgement.'

Under current regulations, which will not change before next year and therefore apply in Hingis's case, she is permitted to participate in 12 tour tournaments plus the four Grand Slams, should she qualify, between her 14th and 15th birthdays. How will this affect her education?

'She started eighth grade a few weeks ago,' Keretic said. 'If you do your scheduling appropriately, you might have to miss maybe three or four weeks per year. She says school is very important, because when she comes back from a tournament she's got a regular schedule again, and she's got her girlfriends to talk to about regular, normal things.

'The reason why she's playing tour tournaments is mainly because the level of competition is appropriate for her. She's not going to stop her education because of it. The point is really, she says, 'Look, I appear to to be good enough to play against those players, why should I say I want to wait another year before I compete against them?'. She says that generally the level of play, of course, is higher than in the juniors, but even in the juniors now it's usual that the first two rounds are fairly easy, and then she's already playing players who are actually playing on the pro tour.'

How difficult does she expect it will be to play on the tour? 'She says she has played a few girls in the Swiss National Championships and in the Swiss Team Championships and she's beaten most of them. Some were ranked 25 to 50 in the world, and she feels if she was able to play regularly she could definitely be in the top 100 pretty soon.'

And has she been allowed to use some of the money from endorsements for a special treat? 'She bought a horse. That's her hobby. She likes to spend every minute that she can on horses.'

We trust that the four-legged friend will not become a victim of loneliness.

(Photographs omitted)

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