Martina Hingis was very hot and Pete Sampras was way cool in the first Slam of '97
By Alexander Wolff
Issue date: February 3, 1997
Aussies call their island nation Oz, and we all know that teenage girls arrive in Oz by tornado. In the case of Australian Open champion Martina Hingis, the twister conveying her touched down and kept on twisting.
For two weeks Hingis capered around Melbourne, and nothing could subdue her -- not heat, brushfire or the pestilence of first-week upsets that felled six of the top seven women's seeds. The 16-year-old fourth seed from Switzerland went in-line skating along the banks of the Yarra River and in the parking lot behind the National Tennis Centre. She dropped some of her new wealth in the city's boutiques. She went riding and fell unharmed from her horse, a mare named (of course) Magic Girl.
At 6:45 p.m. last Thursday, Hingis was still on court with Natasha Zvereva, finishing off Gigi Fernandez and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, the world's No. 1 doubles team, in the semifinals. Over the next 70 minutes Hingis took a shower, got a massage and grabbed a bite at her hotel. As she and Melanie Molitor -- her mother, coach and roommate -- sprinted the block to the Regent Theatre to catch the 8 p.m. curtain of Sunset Boulevard, a photographer in pursuit tripped, fell and wound up with a mouthful of Melbourne macadam.
If all this makes it seem that tennis was incidental to Hingis, it was. She didn't so much win her first Grand Slam singles title as toss it off. She never dropped a set in the fortnight, and she needed only 59 minutes to be done with Mary Pierce in the final last Saturday, 6-2, 6-2, to become the youngest female winner at a major since 1887, when 15-year-old Charlotte (Lottie) Dod won Wimbledon.
Lottie Dod, lah-dee-dah. "It's just another record for me," Hingis said after being asked if the achievement meant anything to her. "I mean, I have so many records already."
When Hingis and her mother arrived in Australia for the Sydney International right after New Year's, Molitor didn't believe Hingis was in condition to win a Grand Slam tournament. They had spent Christmas with Molitor's mother in Roznov, in the Czech Republic, where temperatures were in the single digits and Hingis had little chance to train. "I'm ready," Hingis insisted after she won in Sydney.
"Then show me," Molitor reportedly said.
Matter-of-fact exchanges like that are commonplace between this mother and daughter. At the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., last March, after Hingis lost her second-round match to a player with a triple-digit ranking, Nana Miyagi of Japan, Molitor told Hingis she wasn't working hard enough. Hingis responded by saying she found practice boring.
"It's either tennis or school," her mother told her. "Choose now."
The difference between Molitor and the proverbial Tennis Parent from Hell is that she gives her daughter choices. Hingis and her mother are determined to avoid the troubles of two other players with omnipresent parents, Pierce and Jennifer Capriati. Pierce's career was sidetracked by an abusive relationship with her coach and father, and Capriati's by a lack of motivation and a drug arrest. "We're not going to make the same mistakes," Hingis says. "In every family there are sometimes problems. Especially because she's my coach and my mother, sometimes I'm against what she wants me to do. But right now we have a great relationship."
They're both sensitive to suggestions that Molitor might be stealing her daughter's childhood. "Traveling is an even better education than sitting eight hours a day in class," Hingis says. "I'm learning all the cultures, all the different nationalities and mentalities. When I first came here, I didn't know that Canberra is the capital city."
Unlike some prodigies who came before her, Hingis has never been incarcerated in a sun-baked Florida tennis gulag. At her home in Trubbach, in German-speaking eastern Switzerland, she has a court made of the same Rebound Ace composition surface on which the Australian Open is played, but she says she never practices more than two hours a day and doesn't lift weights. She fills much of her time with mountain biking, soccer, skiing, aerobics, in-line skating, riding (she has two horses, Montana and Sorrenta) and walks through the woods with her German shepherd, Zorro. The only hint of the lash is that Molitor coaches Hingis in their native Czech tongue because, Molitor says, "I can't swear as quickly in German."
If comparisons with other phenoms are inevitable, Molitor prefers to invoke Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, the former teen stars who had successful if injury-truncated careers. "Austin and Jaeger are happy people today, and someone should point that out," Molitor says. "Tennis is just a short stage of your life, and it can be good preparation for the rest of it. I want it to help Martina become independent and self-analytical until someday she finds a partner. And I don't mean a doubles partner."
When Hingis made her pro debut at 14, she had the look of a Chris Evert-style baseliner. Now, with more sting in her serve and a knack for knowing when to go to the net, she's beginning to hint at the all-court skills of the woman she was named after, Martina Navratilova.
Hingis's smile is part of the package, and it's not easily suppressed. Against Pierce she put away a short ball with a topspin forehand and grinned. After match point she embraced her mother, still grinning. "If we could play so well, we'd all be smiling, too," Molitor said afterward.
Hingis even smiles when no other player would dare to -- after a net-cord winner, when the player striking the shot often raises a hand in ritual apology, the most insincere gesture in tennis. Hingis was the beneficiary of just such a net cord to go up 3-0 on Pierce in the first set, and though she raised her hand obligatorily, she grinned. That's because there's no disingenuousness to her yet, and at times a little would serve her well. Her title vaulted her to No. 2 in the world, and -- this will not go unnoticed by current No. 1 Steffi Graf -- Hingis says only injury can keep her from taking the top ranking this year.
"Next time I have to play mixed doubles," she said in her victory speech, after referring to the women's doubles title she and Zvereva ended up winning, "but I have to give someone else a chance to win an event."
She will become more politic, more mature. For now a wheezy giggle encroaches on the back half of every second or third sentence she utters. She has likened one opponent, Amanda Coetzer, to Speedy Gonzales. And while most players on the tour prefer clingy aerobic wear, Hingis's taste runs toward classic pleated skirts.
"I showed you," Hingis told her mother in the locker room right after the final.
"Yes," Molitor replied, "and I can't say I'm unhappy about it."
As well-positioned as Hingis seems to be to survive adolescence, on the eve of the final The Independent of London published a disquieting interview with her father, Karol Hingis. He described himself as an unemployed tennis coach who earns $166 a month as a maintenance man at a club in the Slovak city of Kosice, where Martina was born. He said that since he and Molitor split, when Martina was six -- mother and daughter moved to Switzerland a year later -- he has only occasionally seen his daughter and hasn't shared in her riches. "It is a dream of mine to be able to train Martina one day," Karol told The Independent. "I know that Melanie doesn't want that. She thinks that I have a bad influence on Martinka."
While women's tennis seems unable to produce a teen champion without some attendant melodrama, Pete Sampras, who defeated Carlos Moya of Spain 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 in the men's final on Sunday, has calmly plowed to nine major titles since winning the 1990 U.S. Open at age 19. Sampras's toughest match in Melbourne came against Dominik Hrbaty, a Slovak-born 19-year-old who made the 25-year-old No. 1 seem like a geezer twice over: First, Hrbaty revealed that three years ago he had asked Sampras for an autograph; then he pushed Sampras to an exhausting fifth set in their fourth-round match. "I could have easily been watching the Super Bowl back in the States," Sampras would say.
That he wasn't can be credited to Sampras's professionalism. Unlike a number of other pros, he didn't bitch endlessly about the heat or dwell on his opinion that the balls were suspiciously soft, even though soft balls would handicap his booming game. When Australia's Mark Woodforde finally held serve after dropping 13 straight games during his third-round match with Sampras, Woodforde bowed self-mockingly to the home crowd, but Sampras was the anti-Hingis, not permitting himself even a smile. Facing Hrbaty on the hottest day of the tournament, he shortened the rallies, husbanding his energy by going for aces and winners. "Pete has a lot of gears he can go to," says his coach, Paul Annacone. "And he has an innate ability to know which one to use."
Sampras unfurled the shot of the tournament in his straight-set semifinal defeat of Thomas Muster: an ankle-high backhand winner from out of court, around the post and past the ball boy, which evoked an I-am-not-worthy salaam from an opponent usually known for his Schwarzeneggerian swagger. Only Sampras could have made the Musterminator look as if he had stepped out of Wayne's World, and only Sampras, who subsists on a regimen of cable, movies and room service during Grand Slams, could ask impishly, "Did it make 'Play of the Day'?"
With his triumph in Melbourne he has won more than $26 million in tournament prize money. Hingis has won only about $2.1 million, but she made her first million sooner than any player of either gender. It's odd to hear a Swiss citizen marvel at how a bank account works, but after Hingis announced on Jan. 14 that she had signed an incentive-sweetened deal with sportswear manufacturer Sergio Tacchini that could be worth as much as $10 million, she rhapsodized about the concept of liquid assets. "You can get this money out!" she said, revealing that she had bought her mother a ring. Hingis particularly likes to spend money, she added, "on big cities."
She probably meant in big cities, even if she was about to put a down payment on Melbourne. But during this still-young year she has done right by the prepositions that mattered: Down and Under, and up and atop.
Issue date: February 3, 1997