Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Hingis showing what little girls are made of: Switzerland gives a lead in the department of youth - Paul Hayward listens to the hopes and dreams of the youngest competitor playing in Wimbledon fortnight

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The Independent Online
INTERVIEWING a 12-year-old girl about her 'career' ought to be illegal, but that is precisely what a group of us did after Martina Hingis, of Switzerland, won her second-round match in the junior competition here yesterday. Hingis, who is named after Navratilova, is closer to achieving global fame than she is to completing puberty.

Hingis is the new little big noise in women's tennis (better make that female tennis). She is already signed to Mark McCormack's International Management Group. She is the youngest winner of a Grand Slam junior title (this year's French Open). And yesterday on Court Five, she was younger than the ball-girls.

So what's new? Jennifer Capriati, whose name was up in lights above Hingis's court, joined the professional circuit a week before her 14th birthday. Monica Seles was barely 17 years old when she reached No 1 in the world. Hingis, for goodness sake, was born in September 1980, but has already cleaned up in European 14- and-under tournaments. She is a product of the Eighties in every sense.

Except that the attention has not spoilt her. Not yet, anyway. How many times can a 12-year-old tolerate being asked: 'When did you first pick up a tennis racket?' 'What is your favourite subject at school?' Imagine your own daughter's youth being picked over in this way. Imagine her sitting down during change-overs to sip water and dab her face with a towel, while facing a dozen camera lenses no more than a couple of feet away.

No wonder, when Navratilova was asked about Hingis here, she said: 'I think it's too soon. I wouldn't do it with my 12-year-olds, put it that way. Even if they were good enough.'

Navratilova has spoken before of the perils of this trade in adolescents. To their credit, though, Hingis's attendants (not least her Czech mother, Melanie, a former professional) have not pushed her into one of the fast- breeder tennis academies in Florida, nor have they extinguished from her mind other distractions, other pleasures. Even the Swiss journalists here have been acting as minders. 'Please, just ask us if you want to know anything about her,' they implore.

Hingis is still wrigglingly shy. She also grins as she speaks. 'I still ski and swim and play soccer and go horseback riding,' she said through an interpreter, who also told us: 'There's no problem with Martina's schooling. She's a straight grade-A student.' Home is not some sinister glasshouse for precocious kids but a Swiss village in Sound of Music land.

Try telling it to the money men. Yesterday Hingis appeared on court wearing Tacchini clothing from neck to toes. Not that the firm has enticed her into a contractual arrangement. They merely 'donate' the gear, and have done so since she was eight, thus achieving a subtle form of entrapment that provides advertising without the taint of exploitation.

She is no android, no sour-faced extension of parental ambition. Hingis has clearly been taught the basics of deportment, but is fresh and natural in her movements. She is also pretty competitive, as she showed by fighting back from 3-1 down in the final set and bouncing her racket in self-admonishment when her concentration lapsed in the second set. Zuzana Nemsakova, whom she beat 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, was four years her senior and far taller and heavier, but still Hingis's superior shot placement saw her through.

And to think, Hingis had never even seen a grass court before she arrived here last week and is the youngest competitor of the entire Wimbledon fortnight. 'It's much more difficult here because everything happens so much faster,' she said. There was another problem. 'I wasn't able to get lunch before the match. It wasn't offered to me,' she said. 'I only had a banana to eat, and that's why I got tired at the end.'

When she is 14, Hingis will be able to play against 'the big girls', as she referred to them after the French Open. She wants to do it now, though oddly she does not talk of a career stretching into the thirtysomething territory of a Navratilova.

'She thinks maybe for a few years she would like to play on the circuit, but she dreams of having a nice house and one day some horses and maybe children,' the interpreter said. Dreams run on permanent fast-forward when you are this good, this young. Despite her name, it is not Navratilova but Seles who most inspires Hingis. She says she admires her 'strength and character', and adds, more touchingly: 'She just goes on court and wins and can go out and buy herself some nice new dresses. I'd like to do that, too.'

All this was said half an hour after the match had ended, but it was the moments immediately following her victory which yielded the most potent image of Hingis's wonderful but somehow troubling ascent. She had dabbed her smiling face again, picked up her bag, and steadied herself for the walk through the throng. Then she was led away by the hand.

(Photograph omitted)