Wimbledon 1997: Martina stirred by absence of Graf

Teenage idols: As a young American faces a challenge close to home, the Swiss miss is ready to strike; Chris Bowers argues that frailty on grass may not hinder the Hingis challenge
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Even as a sweet 16-year-old, Martina Hingis seems to have little left to prove in tennis, and yet a few pundits remain to be convinced about her ability on grass. This may seem more than a trifle odd given that she reached the semi-finals of the Wimbledon girls' singles - an under-18 tournament - at the age of 12 and won it a year later, just three months before turning professional. Anyone who can do that surely has to be regarded as a future Wimbledon champion.

Despite such a pedigree, though, the world No 1 is felt to be vulnerable on grass. Before her unexpected defeat by Iva Majoli in the final of the French Open, the talk of the circuit was that Wimbledon was the most likely obstacle to a Hingis Grand Slam. That Grand Slam is now no longer an option, at least not this year, but, even with the seven-times champion, Steffi Graf, out of the tournament, Hingis is still not as hot a favourite as she might be.

Part of her problem is experience, or rather a lack of it. The tennis year lasts 46 weeks and spans four main surfaces (clay, hard, grass and carpet). Of those 46 weeks, only four on the women's circuit are devoted to grass, which means it frequently takes players a couple of years to get the hang of a surface they might otherwise master within a couple of months.

Another factor is that, remarkably, only one woman (Chris Evert) has ever won Wimbledon using a double-fisted backhand. With 80 per cent of the world's top 100 women now adopting the two-handed technique, it is odds on that this freak statistic will soon be history. But there is a rational explanation: while the two-handed backhand clearly suits some players more than the one-hander, the two-hander's footwork has to be much more precise and on grass there is often insufficient time to prepare the stroke. This is why Jana Novotna and Conchita Martinez may have as good a chance at Wimbledon as Hingis even though they are inferior players on all other surfaces and are both temperamentally frail.

One day, though, Hingis will certainly crack grass. She has so many factors in her favour: an ability to see the ball early, an economy and efficiency of movement that is so natural it sometimes makes her look lazy, genuinely powerful volleys, and a flattish serve which is most effective if the weather isn't too hot and the bounce remains low.

Even more to the point, Hingis has always looked destined to win the great titles in tennis. She was born in Kosice (then Czechoslovakia) in 1980 to Melanie Molitor, a player ranked in Czechoslovakia's top 30 who had played with Martina Navratilova. Melanie named her first, and only, child after Navratilova, who had defected in 1975 and by 1980 was the world No 1. She put a sawn-off racquet in Martina's hand when she was barely two. Then in 1987, Melanie and Martina left Czechoslovakia, and the young prodigy's father, for Switzerland.

Such was the promise of the young Martina that Mark McCormack's International Management Group signed her up on a seven-year contract on her 11th birthday. Coming in the wake of numerous teenage burnout cases (of which Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger were the most notable), IMG designated the former German Davis Cup player Damir Keretic - whose family had fled from Yugoslavia - to work with Melanie as Martina's manager. His brief was to ensure that Martina made progress whilst enjoying as normal a childhood as possible.

Had she been born three months later, Hingis would not have been allowed to turn professional at 14. But by October 1994 she was clearly ready for the big time. She had long since run out of realistic opposition in junior tennis after winning two of the three junior Grand Slams she had contested that year and finishing runner-up in the third. And in her first match on the WTA Tour four days after her 14th birthday, she crushed Patty Fendick, then world-ranked 29th, in straight sets.

The word from the Hingis camp is that she is still a genuinely happy teenager. Apart from recently trying out different things with her hair, she enjoys the jewellery and clothes her riches allow her to buy, and she still plays various sports outside tennis. January's photo-shoot of her rollerblading around Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne, the day before her first Grand Slam final was clearly staged to reinforce the image of the girl next door, but it also seems to be an accurate picture. When Hingis needed arthroscopic surgery on her knee two months ago after falling off her horse, a journalist asked Keretic whether a clause would be added to her contract forbidding her from riding. "She'd rather have a clause forbidding her from playing tennis," the manager replied, confirming that Hingis's love of horses is as big as the bruises they give her.

Whether she is good enough to win Wimbledon this year is still questionable. She is playing no warm-up tournaments and goes into the Championships having won just three of her five matches there. Had Graf been around and fit, then it is likely that the All England Club would have seeded her No 1 at variance with the world rankings. In the champion's absence, Hingis is the automatic favourite. It would nevertheless be a colossal achievement if she were to win, but nothing seems impossible for this remarkable 16-year-old.