Whether she's at home in the Alps or planted on the baseline of a tennis court, Martina Hingis is on top of the world these days, thanks to hard work and an even harder-driving mother

 

by Dana Kennedy
photographs by Bob Martin

Something's wrong with this picture. But it's certainly not the view. The impossibly gorgeous Swiss hamlet of Trübbach, tennis wunderkind Martina Hingis's adopted hometown, is nestled in the Rhine Valley in the shadow of the Alps, an hour east of Zurich and just a mile from the Liechtenstein border. Trübbach (pop. 1,245) looks as if it could be the cover illustration for a dog-eared copy of Heidi. But don't expect to find this village's heroine wearing her hair in braids, sipping from bowls of warm goat's milk or skipping blissfully through Alpine meadows.

In recent years Trübbach has been the springboard for Hingis, 16--who on March 31 became her sport's youngest top-ranked player--and her hard-driving mother-coach, Melanie Molitor, 40, in their extraordinary and relentless quest to scale the summit of women's tennis. And yes, it is their quest, one that began back when Melanie was pregnant with Martina in their native Czechoslovakia. Their mission, and it didn't really matter if little Martina chose to accept it, was officially launched when Molitor placed a sawed-off wooden racket in the tiny hands of her two-year-old daughter and hit balls to her every day for 10 minutes. "Since I was in her stomach, she was thinking I was going to be a great tennis player," says Hingis of her mom, who played professional tennis in Czechoslovakia for nine years and was ranked as high as 10th in her country. "She never thought I maybe wouldn't have the talent. In the beginning she wanted it more than I did."

These days it's hard to tell who wants it more. Molitor, who named her daughter after her idol, Martina Navratilova, is as fiercely ambitious as the most notorious tennis father. But Hingis appears to have absorbed Molitor's dream and made it her own with no trace, at least so far, of the angst that has plagued tennis daughters like Jennifer Capriati or Mary Pierce. "If I had a daughter, I would try to hold her back from playing so much so early," says Navratilova, who retired in 1994, shortly after Hingis turned pro. "But her mother has been very smart with Martina. She's given her a balanced life. Martina is a tennis daughter, but she's a daughter first."

Hingis agrees with that assessment. "I had days when I didn't want to play tennis," she recalls, "but I'm glad I stayed with it because now I have a great life."

That great life includes Hingis's jet-set touring schedule, endorsement deals like her $10 million contract with the Italian clothing company Sergio Tacchini and a growing fame that has made her recognizable from Melbourne to Manhattan. "They knew me when I was walking down Broadway and even when I was in the All-Star Cafe!" says Hingis, letting loose one of her trademark husky giggles. "I didn't have to pay for anything. The bigger you are and the richer you are, the less you have to pay."


On court in Melbourne, Hingis was all business as she won her first Grand Slam singles title.

Of course, in life--as in sports--the bigger and richer you are, the more you have to lose. "The trend of younger and younger champions is developing idiot savants," says Julie Anthony, a former pro tennis player and coach who is now a sports psychologist in Aspen. "Tennis has become big business, and these kids are under pressure to play more tournaments and bring in more money. You wind up with children traveling all over the world looking very sophisticated, often supporting their parents, when in fact they are still children and very vulnerable."

Not to worry, say Hingis and Molitor, who both repeatedly insist that they have a "great relationship" that helps them withstand the stress of world-class tennis. "I don't feel that much pressure," Hingis says. "It's because I've been doing this for so long it seems normal." They point out Molitor's unorthodox (at least for a single-minded tennis mom and coach) child-rearing methods. With Molitor's encouragement, Hingis skis, swims and plays basketball and soccer. She also blithely indulges in risky activities like in-line skating and horseback riding, often right before big matches. She was thrown from a horse while in Melbourne for the Australian Open in January. She still won the tournament.

Seated in her small living room in Trübbach, dressed casually in a T-shirt and sweats that don't hide her surprisingly solid 5'6", 115-pound physique, Hingis patiently explains what she sees as the secret to her success. "People say I seem so normal," she says, gesturing out the window at the neat white houses, grazing cows and breathtaking, snow-covered peaks that seem close enough to touch. "Just look. It's like going back 50 years in time. So peaceful. How can you not be normal when you come back from a tournament and look around at all this?"

Normal? Peaceful? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

It is morning at the modest home Hingis and her mother share in Trübbach. Only the tennis court in the backyard distinguishes the house from its neighbors. Hingis, fresh from her victory over Anke Huber in the final of the Paris Open on Feb. 16, is sipping apple juice in the living room. Suddenly the phone rings, and Molitor bolts out of the bathroom, straight from the shower, to pick it up. She is dripping wet and naked except for a towel that barely covers her torso. Within two seconds, she is bellowing angrily into the phone in Swiss German.

Hingis regards her mother with a mixture of detached amusement and the slight embarrassment that teenagers reserve for their parents. Molitor, seemingly oblivious to the reporter who's interviewing her daughter and the accompanying photographer and stylists trooping through the house, starts to yell even louder. The towel drops nearly to the floor. It is impossible to hear Hingis over the din, which continues at even higher decibels for nearly 10 minutes. "Family problems," Hingis whispers awkwardly. It turns out that the man at the other end of the line is Molitor's second husband, Andreas Zogg, whom she divorced recently after eight years of marriage. He is still living in the house and refuses to leave. Even odder is the fact that Zogg, a Swiss computer salesman, has commandeered the spacious 4 1/2 rooms in the front of the house, leaving Hingis the millionairess and Molitor in the 2 /2 cramped rooms in back. And get this: Hingis paid for the house and owns it free and clear. "It's kind of a bad situation," says Hingis. "We're hoping he goes pretty soon, but we're not sure what's going to happen."

Hingis and her mother have always been confident about what was going to happen with Martina's tennis career: She's been winning tournaments since age six, and she became the youngest juniors champion at a Grand Slam event when she won at Roland Garros when she was 12. "We've adhered to a strict schedule for 14 years," says Molitor. But the course of their personal lives, shaped by anti-Communist politics in Czechoslovakia, has been more convoluted.


Hingis "has the freedom that comes with money," says Molitor (left). "I always dreamed of that"

When she finally sits down for an interview, Molitor isn't eager to discuss her past. Even with her wild, frizzy hair blown into submission by a stylist and her face fully made up for a photo shoot, her intense drive is palpable, almost frighteningly so. She is not warm and friendly, like her daughter, but she doesn't duck the hard questions. "People say that I ruined Martina's childhood and that I only want the money and to satisfy myself," she says wearily. "That's not true. I pursued this so Martina could have a chance in life. It hurts me to hear what people say, but I just continue to follow my own path."

Molitor's path was forged in the small town of Roznov in what is now the Czech Republic. She began playing tennis at age seven and started watching Navratilova at local tournaments when they were both in their early teens. Molitor never played against Navratilova, who defected to the U.S. at 18, and the two did not know each other. But Molitor admits that she watched Navratilova enviously when she left the country. "Tennis was a way to escape from Czechoslovakia," says Molitor, "but not that many of us were good enough."

Molitor had good reason to want to leave. Her father, a landscape architect and an ardent anti-Communist, was sentenced to eight years of hard labor working at a uranium mine that Molitor compares to a concentration camp. The charge was harboring a fugitive involved in anti-Communist activities in the late '40s. "The Communists wanted to break him, and they certainly did," says Molitor bitterly. "They didn't totally destroy him, but they had a terrible impact on him and our family."

Molitor believes she inherited her fiery temperament from her father. "He was the most important person in my life," she says. "He stood up for what he believed in, and he had to pay for it. All my life I've been looking for a man like him." Molitor also says that her father was the "only person besides me who really believed in Martina." He died in 1988, one year before Communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia. "I can't think about how happy he would be to see what's happened to Martina," she says. "If I did, I would cry."

Molitor was still playing competitive tennis when she met Martina's father, Karol Hingis, now 46, who has been a player, a mechanic and a coach. They married and set up housekeeping in Koùsice, in what is now Slovakia, where Martina was born in 1980. They divorced after four years, and Molitor and Martina moved to Roznov.

Martina says her parents' divorce was the worst thing to ever happen to her. "I was only four," she says. "We moved five hours away, and I didn't see my father much anymore." Contrary to published reports that implied they are estranged, Hingis sees her father about three times a year. He met her at the airport with flowers when she returned to Koùsice in late February to represent Switzerland in Federation Cup matches against the Slovaks. "We still have a great relationship, and I know he wants the best for me," says Martina. "He's much more easygoing than my mom. That's why he is where he is. I'm a lot like him, but I reached so much farther than he did."

Martina went farther, of course, because she had Molitor behind her, pushing. "I'm a pretty lazy person," she says with a laugh. "I'm usually pretty calm, and my mom is pretty loud. She's not very, how do you say ... diplomatic. She always has a goal. I have a goal too, but I always want to get there the easiest way."

Hingis may be easygoing, but she does have a temper. Americans got their first glimpse of it at last year's U.S. Open semifinals when she threw her racket in frustration several times during a loss to Steffi Graf. "She can be a bit temperamental, but she knows it and wants to stop it," says Tracy Austin, once a phenom herself but forced out of tennis at 20 by injury. "I think it's great that a 16-year-old is aware of her own behavior. She's a free spirit. Rollerblading in the middle of the Australian Open? I don't know too many Grand Slam finalists who would take that risk."

To accommodate Hingis's free spirit, Molitor's coaching regimen has been both strict and flexible. By the time Martina was three, she could hit the ball back and forth to her mother 15 times, Molitor says. When Martina was four, Molitor increased her practice time to 20 minutes a day. By five, Martina was spending four to five hours on the clay courts in Roznov, where Molitor taught tennis to groups of kids. "But I wasn't playing tennis the whole afternoon," Hingis says. "We'd play soccer or other games too."

When Hingis was seven, her mother married Zogg and they moved to Switzerland, to a village just minutes from Trübbach. "That was the second-hardest time in my life," says Hingis. "I had to go to school, but I couldn't understand anything they were saying."

Within three months, however, Hingis was fluent in Swiss German. (Molitor and Hingis speak Czech to each other and are both fluent in Swiss German, but while Hingis is at ease with English, her mother uses an interpreter.) Hingis went to school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., then spent an hour practicing tennis. When she was 10, she beat her mother for the first time, which she found more satisfying than any drill. "I never liked to practice," says Hingis. "I just liked tournaments. I'm competitive. Practicing was part of the job, and I just had to do it."


When Hingis's schedule allows time to chill out in Trübbach, she and her pal Zorro have a ball

Hingis just did it for years, happily complying with Molitor's coaching rules and spending most of her time off court with her mother as well. Hingis left school when she was 14, and her only friends, other than her mother, are those she has met on the tour. "We're best friends," says Molitor. "We do everything together."

That friendship was tested a year ago during the Lipton championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., when Hingis got bounced in the second round. Molitor, who believed Hingis wasn't taking tennis seriously, gave her an ultimatum: Shape up, she said, or leave the sport. "It was a turning point," say Hingis. "We weren't very happy with each other."

Molitor says she and Hingis had been clashing for the better part of a year. One player on the tour last year remembers seeing Hingis imperiously ask her mom to fetch her some cookies from a plate well within her own reach. "It was very difficult," Molitor recalls. "Martina hit puberty, and she developed into a human being. I had not realized that becoming a human being was more important to her than being a tennis player. Before that she was totally influenced by me. Suddenly she had a personality. She didn't want to train. She thought her success would still come without it. I had to be a little tough with her. She had to realize that tennis wasn't the most important thing for me--it was never that. It was just the chance for Martina to have a good life. But I told her she didn't have to take this chance, that I would love her anyway."

Hingis's reaction to the ultimatum was swift. "The next day she started training the way I wanted her to train," says Molitor. Hingis upped her daily practice time from 90 minutes to 2 1/2 hours and added aerobics and shadow-boxing to the mix. The result? Hingis doesn't have the crushing forehand of Graf or the flashy net game of Navratilova, but "she has all the shots," says Navratilova. "She's not the fastest player, but she has great court sense. The only limit she might have is her height. But she's definitely kicking butt."

Adds Huber, "She's tough to beat. Good for the tour but tough to beat. But I think she was pushed pretty young. Without her mother, I don't think she'd play tennis. She'd be off riding her horse."

With or without her mother, with or without tennis, Hingis rides her horse. Actually, she owns two. She keeps one named Montana in Switzerland; she keeps the other, Sorrenta, at the house she is building in Roznov. "She has the freedom that comes with money," says Molitor. "I always dreamed of that when I was living in the Communist world."

Hingis is looking forward to a career that could someday go forward without her mother's prodding. Molitor, for her part, says she's found the love of her life, 56-year-old Swiss sports journalist Mario Widmer. "She's been such a good coach that other people want her," Hingis says of Molitor. "I want to keep her, but I know the game so well now. She taught me so much. My game might even improve without her."

Hingis claims not to worry about whether she might follow in the footsteps of stars like Capriati or Andrea Jaeger, who burned out early in their careers. "All these people, they're American, you know?" she says laughing. "You don't have to worry about us Europeans. We take everything a lot easier."

 

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