"No one I've ever played has as good a court sense as Martina," says Monica Seles. "She anticipates a step before anyone else. When we played doubles together, she would pick up balls I didn't think she could get and place them. In the middle of the point, she's thinking. It was amazing to play alongside her."
Everything came easily. At 12, Hingis was the youngest player to win a junior Grand Slam title; at 13, the youngest Wimbledon junior champ; at 14, the youngest woman to win a WTA Tour singles match. At 16, having become the youngest player ever to win $1 million, she won the 1997 Australian Open and became the youngest holder of a Grand Slam title in a century. Within months she was the youngest world No. 1 since the computer rankings began in 1975. She also won the '97 Wimbledon and U.S. Open, and only a fluke loss to Iva Majoli in the French Open final stopped her from becoming the youngest player to win the Grand Slam.
Still, Hingis's world conquest, unlike those of Steffi Graf and Seles before her, felt less like an assault than a pickpocketing: With impeccable timing and a dancer's balance—an unlikely drop shot here, a backhand to wrong-foot her opponent there—she left her victims bewildered. "Very artful and whimsical," says tennis TV commentator Mary Carillo. "Not too many people do whimsy anymore. It was a pleasure to watch her find winners that no one else would even think of, to manipulate the court and her opponent so well at such a young age. She was far above everyone else. I thought she was going to be dug in for a while."
And not just because of her tennis. Hingis—who emerged just after Capriati's infamous burnout and drug bust and just before the besieged WTA instituted its so-called Capriati rules, which limited the number of tournaments that could be entered by players under 18—seemed immune to the tour's relentless pressure and tawdriness. While Seles struggled to come back from being stabbed, Mary Pierce publicly broke with her abusive dad and Graf was distressed by her father's imprisonment for tax evasion, Hingis floated about in a cloud of refreshing frivolity, prattling on about horses and in-line skating. After beating Venus Williams at the '97 Lipton Championships in Florida, she held up one of her victim's hair beads like a trophy, then tossed it into a crowd of reporters. The writers secretly called her Chucky because, like the homicidal doll in the Child's Play movies, she would flash a toothy grin between points or while delivering lethal comments about other players. "What rivalry?" she said when asked about her showdowns with Anna Kournikova. "I win all the matches."
Some bristled at her offhand arrogance, but in truth Hingis had few enemies. The press loved her because few champions had ever been so candid or so interested in being famous. Hingis loved the tennis life—the travel, the endless interviews, the mindless photo shoots—and she mitigated her interview-room put-downs with a disarming warmth. Unlike the distant figures who had sat atop the sport for decades, she bantered with opponents before and after matches. In '98, when Jana Novotna won Wimbledon after beating Hingis in the semifinals, Hingis greeted the new champion with a shower of champagne. "What's remarkable is that she can be so friendly, so good and so professional," Novotna said then. "To me a champion is someone who can lose and admit that the other player was better. Steffi Graf has never done that in her life. But after I beat Martina, she said, 'Jana is a great champion.' "
Yet within a year the two women were barely speaking. At the '99 Australian Open, where Hingis won her last Grand Slam singles championship, her career reached a tipping point. Her penchant for saying the first thing that came to mind went from immature to ugly when, on the eve of the final, she described her opponent—Am�lie Mauresmo, a recently uncloseted lesbian—as "half a man." Amid a tidal wave of criticism, Hingis publicly denied and privately defended her comment, painting herself as a pillar of integrity.
Evert, Hingis's WTA mentor, phoned her to discuss the controversy, and "she got mad at me," Evert says. "I talked about being diplomatic, but she just got on her horse about being honest."
Dismounting was inconceivable to Hingis. As the '99 French Open neared, she dumped Novotna as her doubles partner, telling her she was too "old and slow." Novotna publicly called Hingis "young and stupid" and said that Hingis's comments about Mauresmo showed "how being the Number 1 tennis player in the world doesn't mean you're necessarily intelligent."
Molitor watched all this with a combination of bemusement and alarm. Hingis's adolescent behavior—bickering, late nights out, raging hormones—had been taking a toll on their relationship for a year. Hingis was deep in a love-'em-and-leave-'em run through a string of tennis boyfriends: Juli�n Alonso, Justin Gimelstob, Ivo Heuberger and Magnus Norman, all of whom plummeted in the rankings after they took up with her. In her world, boys threatened to supplant everything else. "For me, the private thing was very interesting," Hingis says. "I was Number 1, but it wasn't satisfying enough. I wanted something else. I was 17, and I wanted to experiment."
She had also gained 10 pounds, and she was a step slower moving to the ball. "Changes came in my body, and all of a sudden I couldn't get there," Hingis says. "I was like, What the hell is going on?" She loved glamorous clothes, even if sometimes she looked like a fifth-grader who had just raided her mother's closet. Tottering on a pair of high heels at California's Indian Wells resort in the spring of '99, Hingis passed a pack of boys who asked her name. "You won't forget who I am next time," she said teasingly.