Sweet Sixteen

THE TV DIRECTOR IS HAVING A crisis. Out on the court in Hilton Head, S.C., Martina Hingis is filming a tennis promo for NBC. And she just doesn’t get it. Joyfully, a huge grin lighting her face, she’s pounding ball after ball over the net. But the director wants drama, a promo noir. “No, no, no!” he shouts. “You look too happy out there. Like you’re having too much fun. Make it look harder.”

No can do. The kid—at 16, she’s the youngest No. 1 ranked woman in this century—is a natural. Moreover, she plays the game with a fierce joie de vivre, not to mention unshakable self-confidence. After her upset loss to Iva Majoli in the finals of the French Open on June 7, reporters expected to find her a bit downcast. Instead, Hingis was upbeat, even congratulatory. “I won 37 matches this year,” she told Majoli in Paris. “You’re the only one who beat me. Great job!”

Despite that loss, Hingis remains the No. 1 seed at Wimbledon, which begins June 23. “Usually at 16, you have great groundies or a great serve-volley, but you don’t have the whole package,” says Chris Evert. “She does.” Commentator Bud Collins concurs. “Martina is the most thoughtful woman I have ever seen on the court,” he says. “She has great anticipation and a real sense for the game.”

It’s a game Hingis seemed destined to play. Born in what is now Slovakia, Martina, an only child, was named by her Czech tennis-playing parents for their country’s greatest champion, Martina Navratilova. At 2, she was already trying to hit balls back to her mother, Melanie Molitor. “Surely that was not tennis, but we tried,” remembers Molitor, 40, the only coach her daughter has ever had. By 6, Hingis had won her first tournament.

That year, Martina’s parents divorced. Soon afterward, Hingis moved with her mother and new stepfather, computer salesman Andreas Zogg, to his native Switzerland. “When Martina was 8, she was already without competition,” says Peter Holik, 18, her longtime training partner. “She played against 16-year-olds, and she wiped them out.” After winning a string of junior Grand Slam titles, she turned pro at 14.

Her only real rough patch came during her first year on the tour, when Hingis struggled with both a weak serve and adolescent rebellion. “It was not that I did not like tennis anymore, I just did not want to do anything,” she says. Eventually her mother offered her a choice: Buckle down or go back to school. The result has rewritten tennis history. In January, Hingis became the youngest Grand Slam champion in more than a century when she routed Mary Pierce in the final of the Australian Open. As much as the victory, many spectators remember Molitor’s 10-foot leap out of the stands to hug her daughter. “We always had only us two,” Hingis says. “She is everything in one person.”

Tennis insiders praise Molitor’s training methods. She works Martina but doesn’t drive her; she’s protective, but not fanatical. The pair typically log 2½ hours of practice a day; when they’re home, it’s on the court behind their modest two-story house in the Swiss hamlet of Trübbach. (Molitor and Zogg divorced last year.) Hingis has plenty of time to Rollerblade, play some of her 300 pop CDs, hang with friends—she says “there will be lots of time later” for dating—or jump one of her two horses, Montana and Sorrenta. “I think she has this carefree attitude bordering on reckless,” says Evert of Hingis, who tends not to wear a helmet either riding or blading. “It has helped her become a champion, because she’s fearless. But she has got to watch it in her everyday life.”

Hingis begs to differ, even after the fall from a friend’s horse that partially tore ligaments in her left knee and required surgery in the weeks before the French Open. If anything, the unaccustomed setback may have made her even hungrier. “I would like to prove that I am not a flash in the pan,” Hingis says. “The better you are, the less you want to lose.”


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