There are no more fairy tales in women's tennis, only cautionary tales. And although Martina Hingis is a fresh-faced child from an Alpine village in Switzerland, her story isn't Heidi, and her professional debut didn't occur once upon a time but on Oct. 4, just four days after her 14th birthday.
Hingis is a mere ribbon of a girl who still wears braces. In the players' lounge at the Saalsporthalle in Zurich, she passed the time before her grand entrance at the European Indoors championships by flipping through magazines. Nearby, the woman she was named after, 37-year-old Martina Navratilova, propped her feet on a coffee table and read The Infinite Plan, a novel by Isabel Allende. Hingis is just six months older than the toy fox terrier who accompanies Navratilova on the road.
As 170 members of the international media looked on, Hingis then took the court for her match with Patty Fendick, a 29-year-old American. Conspicuously absent was Navratilova, who remained in the lounge eating dinner and made it clear she does not approve of Hingis's decision to turn pro so young. "I don't," Navratilova said. "But who am I?"
Debuts are for 18-year-old socialites, not 14-year-old kids. Hingis probably should have been riding her horse, Shubidu, or listening to Mariah Carey on her headphones, or admiring the poster of Baywatch's David Hasselhof that hangs on her bedroom wall in Tr�bbach, a village in northeast Switzerland.
The fact is, almost nobody thinks anymore that it is a very good idea for 14-year-olds to turn pro, one exception being International Management Group (IMG), the agency that signed Hingis to a five-year contract 18 months ago and has already obtained endorsement contracts for her with Yonex rackets, Sergio Tacchini clothing and Opel cars, which she is, of course, not old enough to drive. Hingis's mother, Melanie, a 37-year-old former top Czech player, was also in favor of the move, having groomed her daughter for a pro career ever since she named the child after countrywoman Navratilova. "We've worked 10 years for this," Melanie said. "It's a natural development."
There is no question that the younger Hingis, the junior French Open and Wimbledon champion, has the talent to play professionally—witness her 6-4, 6-3 defeat of the 45th-ranked Fendick. Hingis blithely said of the victory, "I'm not that surprised. I've beaten better players." She followed that performance with a 6-4, 6-0 loss to No. 5 Mary Pierce, a setback that was more respectable than it sounds.
Even in losing, Hingis demonstrated elegant ground strokes, a champion's two-handed backhand, a sound grasp of strategy and a composure far beyond her years. Just how good is Hingis? "Top 30," ventured Phil de Picciotto, No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf's agent. "But that doesn't mean I think she should rush to attain the ranking."
Ironically, Zurich was scheduled to be the site of the comeback of another young woman who once was in a rush to get to the top: Jennifer Capriati, who four years ago—when she was not yet 14—reached the final in her first pro tournament. But after a struggle with burnout and a stay in a Miami drug-rehab clinic, Capriati is still attempting to earn her high school equivalency diploma and contemplating whether to relaunch her career, which has been dormant since the 1993 U.S. Open. Last month she signed up for the Zurich tournament and another in Filderstadt. Germany, then withdrew from both, citing a groin injury suffered in practice. She has yet to announce further plans.
Capriati's troubled history doesn't worry Hingis. "She's just one person," Hingis says dismissively. "There are a thousand girls in the rankings."
And at least one more 14-year-old on the horizon. The day before Hingis's match with Fendick, Venus Williams of Pompano Beach, Fla.—whose father, Richard, had repeatedly vowed she would not become another underage pro—announced that she would become just that by playing in a tour event in Oakland on Oct. 31. Williams was given a wild-card entry by the tournament organizer, which is (surprise!) IMG. "I'm completely against it," her father said of the move. "I think it's insane." But he claims to be powerless to control Venus, who, he said, "makes her own decisions." How soon before she signs with an agent and launches herself on a full pro schedule? There were no predictions from Richard on that. "I've already made a fool out of myself once," he said.