Hingis responds to healing hands of her top spin doctor

MARTINA HINGIS began her preparation for the United States Open, which starts next Monday, by taking lessons in how to keep her foot out of her mouth during interviews.

MARTINA HINGIS began her preparation for the United States Open, which starts next Monday, by taking lessons in how to keep her foot out of her mouth during interviews.

After arriving in Florida to train for the American hard-court season, Hingis was coached by Andrea Kirby, a specialist in media relations who advises the Women's Tennis Association Tour. The object was to curb Hingis's tendency to make imprudent remarks, such as her description of Amelie Mauresmo, the lesbian French player, as "half a man", and the assertion, post-tantrums at the French Open in Paris, that "it's probably too hard to understand me, the way I am, the way I play, because it just looks too easy".

Hingis, while contending that sometimes her comments were misinterpreted, acknowledged the need for caution. "I definitely have to watch my mouth more sometimes," the 18-year-old world No 1 said in Toronto, where she faced Monica Seles yesterday in the final of the Du Maurier Open. "But it's part of a learning process, I think. You know, I'm not that old, hopefully not that stupid not to learn from things. It is like going to school in a way. You make a mistake, try to get better next time. If you make the same mistake twice, that's not good."

At Wimbledon two months ago, having told her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, that she no longer wanted her by her side, the precocious champion of 1997 was defeated in the first round in straight sets by Jelena Dokic, a 16-year-old Australian qualifier. Hingis won only two games.

That humiliation followed Hingis's deplorable behaviour a fortnight earlier, when losing to Steffi Graf in the French Open final after leading by a set and 2-0. One misdemeanour away from disqualification after first breaking a racket and then crossing the net to dispute a line call, Hingis fled the court immediately after the match and was brought back in tears by her mother for the presentation ceremony.

On leaving Wimbledon, after losing to Dokic and withdrawing from the women's doubles, in which she was to have partnered Anna Kournikova, Hingis took a holiday in Cyprus with her boyfriend, Ivo Heuberger, a Swiss compatriot who plays on the ATP Tour.

It was then time for Hingis to work on rebuilding her reputation, starting with tuition from Andrea Kirby with regard to minding her Ps and Qs.

"The WTA Tour didn't pay for that," said Bart McGuire, chief executive of the women's tour. "Martina and her agent paid, but we encourage it. We try to give all of our players exposure to media training. Actually, Martina had planned to do that before Paris, but, from a scheduling point of view, it just hadn't worked out. It is kind of ironic, but it was not a reaction to Paris."

The last thing the WTA Tour needs is an outbreak of blandness among its burgeoning variety of talented teenaged players, particularly as the campaign for equal prize money at Wimbledon has shown little sign of success.

"We don't want players to be bland," McGuire acknowledged, "and I don't think there's any risk about that with Martina. Certainly one of her strong points in dealing with the media - in fact with working with all of us - is her freshness and candour.

"I think we probably all learn that, every once in a while, we have to be a little bit cautious about what we say. But Martina has a very attractive and positive side to bring out, and I think that had got a little bit buried in the public perception, or some of the media coverage. If a little bit of help from a professional can help her to bring out that side of her more effectively - and it's there, it's not false at all - then I think we're all better off."

While not underestimating the impact of Hingis's antics at the French Open, which is the only major singles title to have eluded her, McGuire expressed a degree of understanding. "I think a lot of her reaction in Paris was not just about losing a match, but rather her reaction to the crowd. It's very hard for someone, at any age, to have a crowd that were not just positive for Steffi but were negative for Martina.

"She's so bright, and so sensitive, that she will learn from that experience. I really think she will turn people around by bringing out the positive side. One little example: after she beat Venus Williams 6-4, 6-0, to win the San Diego tournament, Martina said there would be lots more matches of its kind. Then she kind of laughed and said: 'Not necessarily that I'm going to win them all, but we will play a lot of matches in the finals of tournaments'.

"And I thought it was very interesting, because that statement, 'it's going to happen lots more times', unexplained, could have been taken as saying: 'I'm going to beat Venus badly a lot more times'. But I think, because she was sensitive enough, she immediately stepped in and removed that implication. I'm not sure she would have done that six months ago."

Emphasising that educating Martina had not become a preoccupation with the WTA Tour, the chief executive revealed that he, too, had been coached by Andrea Kirby in dealing with the media. "I worked with her some months ago, and I thought I learned some things," McGuire said. "After a year in the job, I just thought: 'My goodness, I wouldn't play tennis without going to a pro from time to time, which I do, so why should I go without a real professional giving me some pointers in as important a part of the job as this? I think Andrea may have improved my backhand a little bit, or the equivalent.

"Let's face it, the media are enormously important to us and can be - even you'll acknowledge this - not always easy to live with. And if someone can help us to figure out how to provide what you need to do your job, and yet at the same time avoid stepping in buckets, that's very useful."

Hingis did not find it easy to shut Wimbledon out of her mind. Watching the championships on television at her home only made matters worse. She asked herself: "What am I doing here when I should be there?" The Dokic match became a blur. "Dokic played well, but I played terrible. I don't exactly remember the whole thing any more. It seems like it was 10 years ago."

If Hingis is in denial about her Wimbledon performance, she seems to have come to terms with the disturbing aftermath of the French Open and the rift with her mother. They are working on their relationship. They travelled to America together, and Melanie continues to supervise Martina's practice sessions.

Hingis, who will be 19 on 30 September, says she still wants to do more things for herself, but may now realise that her mother would be prepared to give her more leeway than she imagined. "Mum sometimes talks a lot - sometimes too much - but she's always right," Hingis said. "I think I have matured quite a lot in the last few weeks. I see a few things differently."

Steffi Graf's retirement at the age of 30, while not a surprise, prompted pause for thought in the women's tennis community, not least for Hingis and her mother, both of whom were two years premature in suggesting that the magnificent German was past her best.

"Steffi is an icon, a legend, and the game will always remember her as such," was Hingis's response when Graf decided to finish her playing career ahead of the US Open. "Although we were never like sisters, or even good friends, because we always had the same goals, she was well ahead of me. I never really liked to play her, because she always beat me, but towards the end it got closer."

Graf won seven of her nine matches against Hingis between February 1995 and June 1999, two of them in straight sets on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, in the first round in 1995 and the fourth round in 1996.

Hingis's apparent antipathy towards Graf is thought to stem from the time when Hingis, aged 14, was competing in the junior event at the French Open. She was in the players' lounge, watching the tennis on television, when Graf came in. For Hingis it was a big moment, to be in the same room as one of the sport's greatest players. According to the Swiss youngster, Graf completely ignored her.

One thing Hingis has in common with Graf is an association with adidas. The German sportswear company, which numbered Graf among its premier clients throughout her professional career, recently negotiated a contract, thought to be worth about £1.62m a year, for Hingis to wear its tennis clothing.

Since Wimbledon, Hingis has devoted more time specifically to strengthening her body, adding weight-training to her fitness programme. The result initially took her by surprise. She found she was getting to the ball so early she had almost too much time to think about how to play it. Her confidence grew when she realised that she was able to play longer rallies and was less susceptible to cramping. "I will keep on doing this training," she said, "because I feel a lot better and I don't have to worry so much about being worn down by stronger players."

Time will tell whether Hingis is able to emulate Graf's longevity and success. But, as she said after winning in San Diego, and her huge smile returned to illuminate the interview room: "I'm not over the hill yet."