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What to make of Hingis?
Posted: Tuesday June 22, 1999 05:35 PM
It would have been hard to imagine Martina Hingis losing a match any more ignominiously than she did two weeks ago, when she blew a head gasket and, with it, a commanding lead in the French Open final. But the world's No.1 player -- in title, anyway -- may have outdone herself Tuesday at Wimbledon. In what figured to be cakewalk first-round match against 16-year-old qualifier Jelena Dokic, Hingis suffered perhaps the most startling upset in the tournament's history, falling 6-2, 6-0. Twice before in the Open Era had the top-seeded female dropped her opening match -- but never as decisively. After falling behind 2-1, Dokic rattled off the next 11 games to whip Hingis in just 54 minutes. Without her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, in the stands, Hingis looked particularly addled, often staring blankly into space and failing to play the savvy "positional tennis" that has enabled her to win five Grand Slam titles before her 19th birthday. "I was probably too nervous," Hingis said stoically after the match. "I didn't have the confidence in my shots."
In fairness, her opponent was no slouch. Dokic, unfortunately, recently pierced the public consciousness for reasons other than tennis when her father, Damir, was ejected for disorderly conduct while watching his daughter play in Birmingham. He proceeded to climb on top of a car and lay down in traffic before being detained by police. (Jelena's unforgettable response to the bizarre situation: "I think those Brits are a bit stuffy.") Dokic, however, is unquestionably a star on the make, the world's top-ranked junior last year, who has already been breathlessly heralded as the best Australian female since Evonne Goolagong. Hingis, ironically enough, tapped Dokic as a training partner after the French Open, and the two practiced together frequently prior to their match. "Martina and her mum made us feel part of the family for a whole week," said Dokic. "We never stopped talking and it was such good fun." Says Hingis: "Jelena is going to be a great player."
Still, it's virtually impossible to exaggerate just how stunning an upset this was. While Hingis spent the week before Wimbledon explaining that her debacle in Paris was an unseemly memory, but one she could easily exorcise, it is clear that her once shatterproof confidence has been significantly buffeted. Her air of invincibility, her usual combination of valor and talent, were nowhere to be seen, as she sprayed balls like a busted fire hydrant and made little effort to change tactics when the going got tough. After the match she explained that she was taking "four or five weeks off" to decompress, and, one surmises, redefine the professional relationship she has with her mother.
As little as Hingis has done, particularly recently, to arouse public sympathy, one hopes her past two performances are nothing more than potholes on the road to adulthood. Her craftiness on the court belies her age, but it bears remembering that beneath the cocky exterior is an 18-year-old, hardly impervious to insecurity and self-doubt. After losing two weeks ago, Hingis stomped off the court amid a cascade of boos, trying desperately to suppress tears that would eventually flow freely. This time, the crowd was eerily quiet as she prematurely departed the All-England, her face betraying little emotion other than profound confusion.
Jon Wertheim is a Sports Illustrated staff writer.
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