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The Seven-Year Itch
S.L. Price
June 03, 2002
Sidelined at the French Open for the first time since 1995, Martina Hingis has plenty of time to ponder this question: Does she want to work her way back to the top, or just play?
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June 03, 2002

The Seven-year Itch

Sidelined at the French Open for the first time since 1995, Martina Hingis has plenty of time to ponder this question: Does she want to work her way back to the top, or just play?

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Already, a racket has been tossed. Already, just minutes into practice, too many balls have flown long, the drill has been stopped, the male hitting partner is kicking at the clay. Hingis stands in the muted light of an indoor court, her mother walking toward her. Hingis knows what's coming; she's heard it forever. Mother doesn't want her to take it so easy. Mother wants her to come on the court at full speed. Molitor jabbers in Czech—it's Hingis's first language, but dulled by her years of speaking Swiss-German in Switzerland and English on tour—which annoys Martina because she can't keep up. So she talks back in Swiss-German, which makes Molitor nuts because she can't keep up in that language.

"I've been on the tour for years," Hingis says. "I think my body needs a little warmup time."

"You could have warmed up before," Molitor snaps. She can be funny and warm, but the closer she gets to a racket, the more constipated her demeanor becomes. "When you're on court, keep your mind on the court," she says. "Don't wait a half hour. Why should you be doing those things wrong?"

"Well," Hingis says with a shrug, "sometimes I'm lazy. I don't want to put in that whole effort right from the start." Molitor walks off, head down. She and her daughter have one of the most scrutinized relationships in tennis. Molitor has always been known as one of the "good" parents on tour, credited with raising a daughter who is interested in things besides the fuzzy ball, with mixing tennis training and mountain biking and even throwing a football, and with telling Hingis, even at her peak, in 1997, "If you don't want to play ever again, you shouldn't." Yet no parent looks grimmer during matches. "Martina is always playing—with life, with people, with everything," Molitor says.

So it is today. Hingis goes through her paces, but she's aware of everything off her court: her dog, her manager (Mario Widmer, Molitor's longtime partner), a visiting reporter, the women playing doubles on a nearby court, the twentysomething lad blasting serves alone on another court. She grins and wiggles her eyebrows at today's hitting partner. He doesn't stand a chance. After a few days Hingis wraps these young men around her racket, and they start trying to please her, feeding her the shots she wants. Molitor knows that won't do. Venus Williams won't feed Hingis anything but a forehand to the teeth.

Hingis has broken away from her mother for short periods, but she can't imagine playing without her. If Molitor were to the, Hingis says, she'd probably retire. There's no one whose tennis knowledge she respects more, but Molitor is more than a coach, of course. She does everything to free her daughter to play. Molitor books hotels, analyzes matches and opponents, picks up all balls after practice and, every night, strings Hingis's rackets. During Grand Slam events, it takes Molitor three hours to cut out the old gut and retool the eight rackets Hingis will need the next day, and even during visits home she'll string two or three rackets a night. For Molitor, stringing is the equivalent of breast-feeding: sometimes painful, always time-consuming and endured for the good of the child. Lord knows there's almost nothing Molitor hates more. "I know," Hingis says, "but she does it."

Widmer calls Molitor Mother Teresa because of her penchant for giving away money, but it's her cool calculation that got all three of them where they are today. Molitor, a Top 25 player in Czechoslovakia, began raising a tennis pro the instant she knew she was pregnant, in 1980. She competed until five weeks before she gave birth, winning a tournament in the process: Martina, she crows, was a champion before she was born. Twelve days after the Caesarean section, Molitor was back on court. People assume she named her daughter after Martina Navratilova for tennis reasons, but Molitor insists the choice was about much more: Five years earlier Navratilova had defected to the West. "She was a symbol of freedom," Molitor says. "She was a symbol of everything: life, existence apart from the political system. She was something big. She could break the system. She could go outside."

Molitor couldn't. Her father, Milan, had fought the Nazis and then opposed the Communists, who took power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. Arrested in 1952, he spent the next six years mining uranium and suffering lung damage at a labor camp. Finally freed, he went home to the Czech town of Roznov, began writing letters to organize a revolt and was sent back to the mines for two more years. Melanie was three when he came home for good. Battered but unbroken, he worked as a laborer until the Prague Spring of 1968. His family was never trusted. Though Melanie showed promise as a player, she says Czech authorities wouldn't let her travel outside the country.

By age 18 she had moved from Roznov to play on a steel-mill team in the Slovakian town of Kosice, and there she met a mechanic and tennis buff named Karol Hingis. His friends called him Muna, a Slovakian term for someone who is gullible and plodding, but on the day he married Melanie, in 1978, she accosted a group of men and announced, "From today, you will not call my husband Muna. His name is Karol."

Martina grew up on a tennis court, accompanying her mother there each day from age two. At first they hit for 10 minutes a day, and eventually for hours, but Melanie always made sure Martina competed in matches. When Martina was three, the family moved back to Roznov. Mother and daughter would play doubles against men killing time before their mill shifts began, and the only way a small kid could survive was by inching inside the baseline, taking the ball early. Karol and Melanie were already at odds over the intensity of Martina's training, and he was soon miserable being away from Kosice. Melanie, meanwhile, was thinking of emigrating. "I wanted to achieve something in life, and Karol didn't have any interest in what was happening next week," she says.

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