Tennis: Father with 'Martinka' on his mind

The ambition of Martina Hingis' mother to make her daughter the best player in the world led her to leave Martina's father behind in Slovakia. John Roberts reports on how the other parent now lives

John Roberts
Friday 24 January 1997 01:02

In contrast to Peter Graf, Stefano Capriati and Jim Pierce, notorious fathers of tennis prodigies, the virtually anonymous Karol Hingis's involvement in the sport could be described as peripheral.

The father of the 16-year-old Martina Hingis, who is one match away from becoming the youngest winner of a Grand Slam singles title in the history of the professional game, earns 5,100 koruna (pounds 102) per month as the caretaker of a tennis club in Kosice, the Slovakian city where Martina was born.

Tomorrow, when his millionaire daughter competes against Mary Pierce in the final of the Australian Open, Karol Hingis, 45, will follow Martina's fortunes via satellite television before turning his attention to whatever odd jobs need doing at the Na Amicce Tennis Club where he works.

Acquaintances, as usual, will talk to Karol about the far-away "Martinka" and discuss among themselves any gossip concerning young "Hingisova's" latest deal - a tennis clothing contract with the Italian manufacturer Sergio Tacchini worth up to $12m (pounds 7.5m) over five years - and the new Swiss man in her mother's life.

"I don't get any money from Martina," Karol Hingis emphasises. "The worst thing about it is that nobody believes that I don't get one koruna from Martina's earnings."

Martina's mother, Melanie Hingis-Zogg, 40 next month, will, as always, be at the courtside monitoring her daughter's form and fitness. Melanie, once good enough to be ranked in the top 20 in Czechoslavakia, has been her daughter's coach since the day of the christening, naming her Martina after the great Navratilova.

Melanie encouraged her daughter to play tennis at the age of three and entered her for tournaments from the age of five. She has poured her energy into Martina, "to make her one day the best player in the world".

Karol Hingis also played tennis. He worked as a mechanic in those days and first got to know Melanie, apparently, when she missed her bus after tennis practice on a cold night in Kosice. Martina was born in September, 1980. When she was four years old, the family moved from Kosice to Roznov, Melanie's home town, on the Czech side of the country.

The parents divorced two years later. "The marriage did not function," Karol says. He returned to Kosice, where he lives with his 82-year-old mother. For two years Karol contributed one fifth of his earnings in child maintenance. This stopped when Melanie married Andreas Zogg, a Swiss computer salesman.

Martina was seven years old when she was taken to live in Trubbach, less than a mile from the Swiss border with Liechtenstein. Melanie and Andreas Zogg divorced last September, although Zogg resides at the family's home in Trubbach. Melanie is now reverting to her maiden name, Molitor.

Karol Hingis has met his daughter occasionally when she has played inter- club tennis at Prostejov, in the Czech Republic. "I could never be angry with Martina," he says. "She is still very young and she still cannot judge what happened in our family. One day I would like to explain to her how I see the whole thing. I think we would understand each other very well."

With regard to his job, he said, "The reason why I'm not working as a tennis teacher is because in Kosice no one can afford to pay for lessons for the children. It is a dream of mine to be able to train Martina one day. I know that Melanie doesn't want that. She thinks that I have a bad influence on Martinka."

According to Melanie's friend Mario Widmer, a 56-year-old Swiss sports journalist, she considers that her first husband lacked self-motivation and did not do enough to help his own situation.

Writing in the weekly magazine Schweizer Ellustrierte, Widmer said that Melanie told him that she had "wanted to become a mother - 'just like that, without having to marry'."

There is little doubt that Martina trusts her mother implicitly and that the youngster's conduct on the court - except for the occasional petulant racket throwing - reflects a healthy grooming for a demanding profession.

Far from believing that she knows it all, Melanie is eager to speak to other coaches and to accept their advice.

Mistakes may be made along the way, but the signs are that both coach and daughter have the flexibility to learn from them. For example, during the Lipton Championships in Florida last March, Martina said she found practice boring. So Melanie gave her the choice of either going back to school or showing the dedication needed to be a top player.

At the same time, Melanie has resisted any temptation to subject her daughter to weight-training or to push her too hard in tournaments. Fortunately, Martina's style affords scope for success without having to exert maximum force on every shot.

Karol Hingis can at least look forward to a reunion with his daughter at the end of next month. She is due to visit her home city to play for Switzerland against Slovakia in the Fed Cup. "I don't have much furniture," he says, "but I always have my sofa. I keep it for Martina, in case she wants to come here and sleep."

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