If she were older, of course, Martina Hingis would have paused for a moment last Saturday and tried to capture it all. She would have stood in the stadium at Key Biscayne after destroying her former idol, and she would have taken in the nectar-sweet Florida air, the blue sky and the cheering of 12,164 people who knew they had just witnessed a bit of history, a rare confluence of youth, genius and achievement. If she were older. Hingis would have known that memories of days like this can later ease days that aren't. But she is 16, and the wonderful thing about being 16 is that you can play flawless tennis and thrash the great Monica Seles 6-2, 6-1 in the Lipton Championships final without having to stop and savor it. You blast a backhand winner that freezes Seles at match point and skip to the net with a half-moon grin and take the trophy and rush off, because at 16 you have no doubt that tomorrow and every day after it will feel just like this.
"Why should I be worried about the future?" Hingis said afterward. "Right now, almost everything is perfect." Hingis, who was certain to become No. 1 on the Women's Tennis Association computer regardless of how she performed in the Lip-ton, roared through the tournament the same way she has roared through 1997—undefeated and virtually unchallenged. She handled all comers so creatively that they didn't just lose: they were awed. "She's different," said ninth-ranked Irina Spirlea, who lost to Hingis during the latter's march to the '97 Australian Open title. "She was born to play tennis. You cannot work at this. Even if you work at it, you cannot have it like she has it."
Hingis is frolicking through the oft-nightmarish world of the women's tour like, well, a kid cutting loose. "I have never enjoyed tennis as much as I do now," she said daily at the Lipton, and she proved it by grinning her way through a full slate of singles and doubles matches—she made it to the women's doubles semifinals—interviews and photo sessions, laughing off the idea of feeling pressure and never ducking behind little-girl modesty. After she took apart much-hyped phenom Venus Williams in straight sets in the third round, a tennis official handed Hingis one of the colored beads that had fallen from Williams's braids and said she should tell people it was a souvenir. Hingis scoffed, "I'll say something better than that." She walked into her press conference, flung the bead into the crowd like a brave tossing a fresh scalp and said with a giggle, "I have a nice present for you. One of Venus's pearls."
Another day. asked if she felt unbeatable, Hingis said, "Well, I am."
Arrogant? Sure. Exhausted? "What does it mean—exhausted?" Hingis said.
"Me?" she said.
Is it any wonder that the beleaguered powers of women's tennis look upon Hingis as a savior? For most of the '90s, the women's game has been rocked by one melodramatic episode after another, with Jennifer Capriati (drugs), Mary Pierce (abusive father), Steffi Graf (tax-dodging dad) and Seles (stabbed by a deranged Graf fan) grouped together like some doleful Mount Rushmore, a monument to one sport's lost generation. Two years ago the WTA, in an effort to reduce the pressure on adolescent players, declared that girls had to be 18 to play the tour full time but conveniently grandfathered in Hingis, then 14 years old. Hingis, a Czech-born Swiss citizen who has been playing since she was two, was and is driven to succeed by her flinty mother, Melanie Molitor, who dismisses burnout as an American creation. Asked Saturday if she was at all apprehensive about her daughter's taking over the No. 1 spot so young, Molitor said, "Why should I be? It's what we wanted."
And if Hingis's career was to end right now, you could argue that Molitor and the WTA were right to let her join the tour at 14. So far, Hingis has shown she can handle the rigors of constant travel and the boredom of hotel life. She doesn't take herself or her career too seriously; she rides horses without a helmet, in-line skates without pads. Before one of her matches at the Lipton, while rain poured onto a slippery practice court, Hingis ran full-bore after balls. She wears the mantle of stardom lightly. In fact, she might remind you of the woman she displaced Monday as the youngest No. 1 in history. When Seles reached the top at age 17, she too was vivacious and happy, a giggling Madonna fan with killer strokes and a champion's will.
"She was just great at that time," said Hingis, who at nine saw Seles play at a tournament in Zurich. "She just looked different. She had this hair, blonde; then she cut it. I liked her personality a lot, yes."