Wimbledon 99: Fun-loving side of Hingis the horrible

The confident 18-year-old says biscuits are the biggest obstacle to her second singles title. By John Roberts
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MARTINA HINGIS, the enfant terrible of the French Open 17 days ago, acknowledges that Wimbledon weighs heavily, and not only on her mind. "Last year I was about 10lb heavier than the previous year," Hingis says. "I always gain weight at Wimbledon."

Why? "Because it's raining," Hingis says, wide-eyed with horror at the recollection of nibbling her way through the delays. She instantly identifies the waistline's biggest enemy. "Cookies!" she squeals. "You have to force yourself to go for a run, or do something besides eating."

A sense of fun contradicts the general perception that the 18-year-old world No 1 is a joyless, arrogant, tantrum-throwing, multi-millionaire tennis freak, although her behaviour during the women's singles final in Paris provided compelling evidence of that.

Hingis was on the brink of disqualification after invading Steffi Graf's side of the court to dispute a line call. She took a bathroom break to change her shirt and hair-do. And, after losing the match, she left the court and was led back in tears by her mother, Melanie Molitor, to address the crowd in French during the presentations.

The Slovakian-born Swiss defeated the Czech Jana Novotna in the 1997 Wimbledon women's singles final, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, to become the youngest champion of the century, aged 16 years and 278 days. Novotna eliminated Hingis in the semi-finals last year, 6-4, 6-4, and went on to defeat Nathalie Tauziat in the final, winning her first Grand Slam singles title at the age of 29 years and nine months.

Novotna's tears of joy after a nerveless performance were featured in all the newspapers. A photograph by Robert Hallam in the Independent, showing Hingis biting the net cord (presumably there were no cookies left), encapsulated the defending champion's frustration. "I knew exactly what I had to do," Novotna says. "I had learned from the mistakes I had made in the final in '97, although it was a different story then because I was a little bit injured. But anyway, I still made mistakes, and I talked about it with Hana [Mandlikova, Novotna's coach]."

"Yeah, and I was mentally injured," Hingis says, joking again about those extra pounds she has worked hard to shed.

Irrespective of the WTA Tour's unsuccessful campaign for equal prize- money with the men, Hingis was not impressed that the silver salver she received for winning the singles title was only eight inches in diameter, a replica of the Venus Rosewater Dish (18-and-three-quarter inches in diameter) she had paraded on Centre Court. "It's really small," Hingis says. "for a tournament like this."

Hingis mentions that she has heard that somebody owns a full-size copy of the plate in bronze and that it cost pounds 7,000. Your correspondent reminds her that the 50 guineas trophy was made in 1864 by a Birmingham company and is a copy of an electrotype from a pewter original in the Louvre. "At the Louvre I only know there's the Mona Lisa," she says.

During her speech at the 1997 Wimbledon Champions' Dinner, Hingis, a guest of honour with Pete Sampras, said she was sorry that the traditional dancing, led by the two singles champions, had been discontinued.

Although there was no replica Venus Rosewater Dish for Hingis last year, let alone a dance with Sampras, she and Novotna each received miniatures of the Duchess of Kent Challenge Cup after winning the women's doubles title.

"I lost to Jana and then we had to play the doubles together," Hingis recalls. "But Jana is very tough to beat, and for me it was normal to go out there and try to win again. I would still prefer to win the singles, of course, but the doubles is a great thing to have."

Hingis, having won the Australian Open with the Croat Mirjana Lucic, and the French Open and Wimbledon with Novotna, went on to complete a Grand Slam in doubles by partnering Novotna again at the United States Open.

This season opened with Hingis winning the Australian Open singles and doubles titles for the third year consecutively, the doubles with a third different partner, Anna Kournikova, following Natasha Zvereva in 1997 and Lucic in 1998.

For Kournikova, a year younger than Hingis, the doubles triumph in Australia provided relief at a time when the Russian's singles career seemed to going nowhere except the Guinness Book of Records under the heading "Double Faults".

"Anna was tired and frustrated, and with me she'd got a chance of winning the doubles," Hingis says. Kournikova's spirits were raised so high that Hingis decided to continue their partnership at Novotna's expense, reportedly telling the Czech she was becoming too old and slow. The words were filed in Novotna's mind for future reference.