Until yesterday, mother and prodigy (she was named Martina after Martina Navratilova) were rarely seen apart. After divorcing Karol Hingis, who still lives in Slovakia, Melanie Molitor took Martina to the Czech Republic, married a Swiss computer salesman and the family moved to Switzerland. Martina was seven, and had been coached by Melanie from the cradle. At the age of 12 she won the French Open junior title, and has not ceased to astonish the tennis world since then.
But there was no sign of mother at courtside yesterday when Hingis became only the third No 1 seed in Wimbledon history to lose the opening match in the women's singles, practically being blown off the court 6-2, 6-0 after only 54 minutes by Jelena Dokic, a 16-year-old Australian qualifier ranked No 129 in the world. Melanie had already left the country, at her daughter's request.
Their relationship, which had been under stress since the French Open final in Paris little more than a fortnight ago, when Melanie had to bring her tearful daughter back onto the court for the presentations after her tantrums while losing to Steffi Graf, had finally cracked.
"We have decided to have a little bit of distance and work a little bit more on our private lives," Hingis said. "I want to be more independent, to make decisions about the way I practise, and the way I do things, not having somebody else telling me what to do."
Melanie, who also divorced her second husband, is now escorted by Mario Widmer, a Swiss former sports writer, who acts as Martina's manager.
The day was bound to come when Martina would take the first steps towards organising her own life, but it was a pity that on Court No 1 yesterday she should look as fragile as a foal on an occasion as important to her as this, when she was trying to re-establish herself, both as a player and a personality in the public glare.
Dokic, one of many young players who has been invited by Melanie to practise with her daughter on the courts at their home in Trubbach, Switzerland, took full advantage of Hingis's vulnerability. The Belgrade-born Dokic drove Hingis further and further over the baseline with the speed and consistency of her serving and the power and the accuracy of her groundstrokes. At times her forehand was reminiscent of Graf at her best.
Hingis was fortunate to rescue three break points in the opening game and the match quickly went downhill for her after that. Dokic's shots became deeper and deeper, hurting Hingis more and more, and soon the only points the Australian was dropping were on her own erring drop-shots, and eventually even those began to land true.
Broken in the fifth game of the opening set, Hingis created just one chance to rectify the situation, only to miss with a backhand return, before being broken a second time, for 2-5, as Dokic's fierce two-handed backhands began to look as effective as Monica Seles's used to be. The Australian needed three set points to serve out the set after 31 minutes, punching a fist in the air after serving well enough to leave Hingis with little option but to net a couple of backhand returns.
Ominously, Hingis gradually began to look as if she was resigned to one of the beatings of her life. She even stopped herself from questioning one particularly close call, explaining afterwards that it did not matter because, unlike the clay courts of Paris, the ball does not leave a mark on the grass.
The nearest Hingis came to a protest was a barely audible "What?" after the umpire decided that her backhand had landed long as she dropped her serve again in the opening game of the second set. Hingis hit another backhand beyond the baseline in the second game, bidding farewell to her only break point in the second set, and was then broken for 0-3, Dokic consolidating her lead by holding to love with her first ace.
Although confident enough to better Hingis's best shots, Dokic remained respectful of her opponent's ability, tapping her racket in admiration after Hingis saved a break point in the fifth game with a superb forehand cross-court pass. Hingis came through another crisis with a drop-shot, but had no answer to Dokic's backhand return down the line on the third opportunity.
"Come on Aussie," urged a voice from the crowd as Dokic served for the match. Two consecutive aces took her to 40-30, but Hingis managed to pull back to deuce before accepting the inevitable, taking a backhand swing at second serve on the second match point, but hitting it wide. The second set had lasted only 23 minutes.
"Jelena played a good match today," Hingis said. "I tried to go on court and forget about everything that has been happening around me, but I couldn't really pick up my game. She didn't give me a chance to get into it."
Unlike in Paris, Hingis had no complaints about the crowd. "Jelena played a great match, and they were clapping for her great shots, not against me. I just didn't make many winners. They had nothing to clap about."
Hingis said she intends taking a break from tennis until August, when the American hard court season gets under way, and she acted on that straight away by withdrawing from the doubles here, in which she had been due to partner Anna Kournikova. She has kept in touch with her mother by telephone since Sunday, and they intend to meet to discuss future plans. "I just need a break," Hingis said. "It would really suit me now."
Hard though Melanie Molitor can be when fighting Martina's corner, she appears the type to understand a daughter's emotional growing pains. They have skied together, roller-bladed together and have fallen out with each other. But Melanie will no doubt leave her door ajar for Martina, whether she needs her as a coach, or simply as a mother.
Richard Williams, page 29
There have only been four occasions when a No 1 seed has been beaten in the first round at Wimbledon
1967: Manuel Santana (Sp) lost to Charlie Pasarell (US) 10-8 6-3 2-6 8-6.
1962: Margaret Smith (Aus) lost to Billie Jean Moffitt (US) 1-6 6-3 7- 5.
1994: Steffi Graf (Ger) lost to Lori McNeil (US) 7-5 7-6.
1999: Martina Hingis (Swit) lost to Jelena Dokic (Aus) 6-2 6-0.Reuse content