Martina Hingis's game and personal life are suddenly in turmoil
Not long ago—has it been only three weeks?—Martina Hingis was just a supremely talented and lighthearted No. 1, and her relationship with her mother-coach, Melanie Molitor, was a model of parent-child chemistry. Molitor may have grimly directed her 18-year-old daughter through regimented training sessions, but she accommodated Hingis's horseback riding, various romances and remarkable warmth toward her toughest rivals. But now, in the wake of Hingis's jaw-dropping debacles in the French Open final and the first round of Wimbledon, every aspect of her career, especially her bond with her mother, is being questioned.
Has a tennis great ever suffered such a meltdown? Even after Hingis publicly derided another player's sexual orientation at the 1999 Australian Open and then behaved abominably in her showdown with Steffi Graf in the French final, no one sensed that there were holes in her game or personal life. Her tennis seemed typically brilliant; her arrogance seemed typically unshakable. But then, last week, came a 129th-ranked qualifier named Jelena Dokic, an empty seat where Molitor always sat during Hingis's matches, and a 6-2, 6-0 loss in the first round at the All England Club—the biggest upset in women's tennis history. "Has it all happened too fast for you, your career?" someone asked Hingis in the post-match press conference.
"Maybe," she said.
Coming from her, that was tantamount to a scream from a rooftop. Hingis declared that she and Molitor, who had never been absent from one of her matches since Hingis turned pro in the fall of 1994, had "decided to have a little bit of distance." Hingis said she wanted to be "more independent to do my decisions, the way I practice and the way I want to do things." She said she didn't plan on hiring another coach. Then, citing a chronic heel injury, she pulled out of the doubles competition and bolted.
"Things have happened too easily for Martina her whole career," says Chris Evert, who has been a mentor to Hingis. "She floated through the juniors and her first year on tour, when Steffi and Monica [Seles] were injured or out, and it was just wide open for her to dominate. This is the first time she's faced adversity. She's had an arrogance, and why shouldn't she? But now she's lost a few matches, and she's panicking."
Those closest to Hingis dismiss rumors that the rift with her mother had anything to do with Molitor's demand that Hingis return for the French Open trophy presentation after she stormed off the court following her loss to Graf, or that the break had to do with Hingis's romantic relationship with Swiss player Ivo Heuberger. A stickier issue is that Molitor has been mulling over the idea of coaching other players. Dokic confirmed that she and Molitor had discussed a possible coaching arrangement when Dokic spent a week working out with Hingis at her home in Switzerland before the French Open.
The root of the tension between Hingis and Molitor seems to be "the natural progression of Martina coming of age," says Ivan Brixi, Hingis's agent. Molitor, a former player who named her daughter after Martina Navratilova, began training Hingis when she was two, strung her daughter's rackets personally and attended virtually every match from the time Hingis began playing competitively at age four. The two women have been inseparable, sharing hotel rooms and meals. "There comes a time," says Wimbledon No. 3 seed Lindsay Davenport, "when it's probably not cool for your mom to be your best friend."
No one expects Molitor to disappear entirely. Despite Hingis's statement in London that she will take time off from tennis she plans to begin training next week for the U.S. hard-court season, at her new home at the Saddlebrook resort in Florida. Though mother and daughter are still ironing out the details of their tennis relationship, according to Brixi, "there's no question Melanie will be involved." There's also no doubt that Hingis is not ready to distance herself from her mother. When Hingis arrived home in Switzerland last week, she broke into tears and said, "Mom, I need you."
All Chauvinist Tennis Club