First, mother tried fooling herself. Mother recited the usual excuses: Martina's just a kid, she'll grow out of it, give her time. Melanie Molitor forced herself not to believe the worst, because to do so would change everything. It was, after all, her own stubborn will that had ignited this brilliant career. She couldn't afford doubt. But before her daughter's composure cracked in Paris in the spring of 1999, before the losses piled up in London and New York City, and long before it became obvious to the rest of the world that the great Martina Hingis had gone wrong, Molitor knew—down at the bone—that she had a problem on her hands.
Not the kind of problem solved by a surgeon's knife, or by time off. How do you solve blood? How do you solve character? When, in January, Hingis lost the final of the Australian Open to a stronger, fitter Jennifer Capriati, everyone in tennis noted that it had been three years since Hingis's last major title and again declared the game too fast and the players too big for the 5'7", 130-pound Hingis to handle. She just can't hit with these women is the usual line whenever Hingis plays someone like Capriati, Lindsay Davenport or Venus or Serena Williams—even though on that blistering Saturday afternoon in Melbourne, the soft-serving Hingis had the No. 1 player in the world pinned to the asphalt. That Hingis had deftly built a 6-4, 4-0 lead and later had four match points was, of course, eclipsed by how haplessly she lost the match, but the odd blend of dominance and submission revealed a Hingis never seen before. She was far more dangerous, and far weaker, than anyone had thought.
"I let it slip away," Hingis said, still mystified, three months later. "I had it in my hands, and I didn't take it."
Mother wasn't surprised. Molitor had sacrificed plenty—her homeland, her career, her men—to make her daughter a superb and wealthy tennis player, but neither ambition nor maternal love clouded her critical eye. She could read her daughter like a billboard. Successful as the 21-year-old Hingis had been (five Grand Slam singles titles, nine major doubles titles and 209 weeks as the women's world No. 1), Molitor kept waiting to see what Chris Evert calls "the need." When Hingis's peers stalked her and then took her down, Molitor waited for her daughter to display a champion's drive, that hunger to adjust to her rivals and beat them back. She never did.
Mother and daughter argued, separated, reunited, cried. All the while Molitor rapped her knuckles against Hingis's cheery surface in the hope of hearing something solid beneath. Instead, all she heard were echoes: her own words repeated back to her; the giggles of her daughter in yet another flirtation; the voice of a husband left behind. Molitor can laugh at this now, joke about her daughter's achieving so much without caring so much. "She does only what she has to do to get by," Molitor said. "She's not lazy, but she only works as long as it's fun and it's not hurting."
Now, of course, Hingis isn't working at all. For the first time since breaking onto the tour full time in 1995, she's not in Paris for the French Open, and she won't be playing Wimbledon, either. On May 20 Hingis underwent surgery in Zurich to replace two ruptured ligaments in her left ankle—the first step in resolving long-term ankle, knee and hip pain—but her future remains murky. According to her surgeon, Heinz Buehlmann, the tendon and bone in both of her heels are chronically inflamed, a problem impossible to fix with surgery. "A very serious inflammation," he says. "There's no way to cut it away." Speculation about when she'll return to the tour has ranged from six weeks to three months to never; Buehlmann says the pain might force Hingis into retirement.
The Hingis camp has taken pains to downplay that assessment, but it's clear that her body is breaking down. Last fall Hingis missed two months after having surgery to reconstruct three ligaments in her right ankle, and during last week's surgery Buehlmann discovered a broken bone in her left foot. Once the tour's most durable star, she is now its most fragile—in mind as well as body.
"I'm going to try—that's what I owe myself, and I've done it before," Hingis said last week. "But it crosses my mind: What happens if it's not possible anymore, once I have to start playing four, five hours a day? Are my legs still good enough to compete? The doctor can't guarantee that."
Yet even before her layoff, Hingis's commitment had been wavering. In late April, as she practiced for Paris, her ankle hadn't yet become a critical issue, but her motivation was a shambles. Winning another major? Getting back to No. 1? "Sometimes I feel, Been there, done it, now what?" Hingis said. "What more is there to prove?" Her career has hit the wall. She's got the seven-year itch: still in her prime but no longer sure why she's playing. "I'm 21," she added. "What else would I do?"
Once, Martina Hingis was the smartest girl in the room. Her rise was so smooth, her game so elegant and imaginative that she seemed to have crossed over from a different tennis dimension—some parallel universe where technology hasn't turned rackets into rocket launchers, where all hands are soft, where everyone's brain works overtime divining geometric possibilities. Unlike Evert or Bjorn Borg, Hingis didn't spawn a wave of imitators. No one tried to play like her. No one could. "She's just a genius," says Billie Jean King.