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Between The Lines
April 23, 1997 Article

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Between The Lines By Joel Drucker
 
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What Makes Hingis A Champion

What I love most about Martina Hingis is the intellectual pleasure she derives from her tennis. She may resemble the protagonist in a young adult novel, but her court sense is the stuff of dissertations. Calculated yet creative, methodical yet intuitive, youthful yet mature, she is the breath of fresh air women's tennis has been lacking for years.

"This kid Hingis," Pancho Segura told me three years ago after he'd seen her win junior Wimbledon, "she'll cut your head off. And she'll like it too."

Which is exactly as tennis should be.

But the rub in tennis is that too many recent champions -- great players all -- have displayed an ambivalence towards the number one spot. Steffi Graf's tennis court is an escape from dysfunction. Martina Navratilova's fatalistic sensibility kept her looking over her shoulder more than necessary. Chris Evert's seven years as number one were punctuated by a grim brand of repression and an unwavering dominance that only made her a crowd favorite when she regained the top spot for two years in the early '80s. Ditto for Bjorn Borg, who's abdication in turn left John McEnroe uneasy at the top.

And while Monica Seles seemed to possess a joyful killer instinct, her pathetic efforts to reconcile success with fame (witness her Madonna wannabe pose when skipping out of Wimbledon in '91) were tragically interrupted by a knife-wielding maniac. For all of these champions, the top spot carried a certain kind of world-weary quality.

One hopes at this point such a fate will not strike Hingis. One hopes she will wear the crown not just with cool pride, but with the passionate pleasure we've seen from the likes of Billie Jean King, John Newcombe and Jimmy Connors.

"Here, I have something for you," she opened a press conference at Lipton moments after she'd dismantled Venus Williams. Smilingly impishly, Martina pulled out a plastic bead from Williams' hair that had fallen on the court, staring at it with the appetite of a hunter surveying a fresh kill.

What makes Hingis so good? The alpha and omega of her genius lies in her nimble mind. Watch her play for a few minutes, and you can witness her delight in using her brain. Check it out as she probes for the opponent's weakness, or dares someone to hit to her strength, or takes the pace off one ball, drives one deep, sneaks into net or throws up a lob. In last November's Oakland final versus Seles -- Hingis' first big tournament win -- she confounded the powerful Monica with an array of spins, lobs, drop shots and power. On one point she had the audacity to serve-and-volley on her second serve. Not expecting this in the least, Seles put in play a medium-paced return which Hingis tapped into the open court.

Forget all the hype about balance and skating and horses and schoolwork.

We've been hearing this about women tennis players ever since Evert stayed in high school. It's not hobbies that make Hingis brilliant. It's that innate kind of court sense that is wonderful to watch, but difficult to teach. "Let's face it," says Mary Carillo, "her mother may have helped her with the strokes, but if her mother had all those ideas, don't you think we would have heard of her by now?"

In large part, Hingis is a shrewd, aggressive counterpuncher, a player with a total game far exceeding the sum of its parts. Constantly paying attention, she knows how to use her opponents' pace to close off the court and create opportunities. On the backhand, she is uncanny in her ability to change the direction of the ball and strike one down the line. Her forehand is somewhat weaker, and it will be interesting to see how it holds up on both the high-bouncing clay of Roland Garros and the low-bouncing grass of Wimbledon. The serve, a rather simple motion, is improving, but still obviously a work in progress. While comfortable at the net, Hingis is hardly an adroit volleyer in the manner of Navratilova or Jana Novotna. But throughout her young career she has shown an ability and willingness to venture forward and snip off a passing shot for a winner.

"I don't like drilling or practicing so much as I like playing," she told me two days before her Oakland final versus Seles, "I like to think of myself as a player."

Most of all, what Hingis has is a remarkable sixth sense for anticipating and using the geometry of the court. This skill has been lacking in the womens' game for several years. Seles has it in a brutal, raw manner, but you'd have to go back to Evert and Navratilova to find players who used the corners, the sidelines, the spins, the paces -- and then knew when to step in for the kill.

Hingis' game combines elements of some of the most compelling players in tennis history -- from Evert and Goolagong to Miloslav Mecir, John McEnroe and even Jimmy Connors. But when compared with anyone, she declares that "I am most of all Martina Hingis" with a confidence that's both dazzling and potentially off-putting. But then again, isn't a touch of bravado what we want from our kings and queens?

"Champions finish," says Billie Jean King, and from watching Hingis in action one sees how well she knows how to seize control of the point.

Physically unable to repeatedly blast her way through the ball in the manner of a Lindsay Davenport or Mary Pierce (or Steffi Graf for that matter), Hingis is a thinking person's tennis player. Her mind won't allow her to get into simple rallies. And because tennis is so much an intellectual activity for her, the capacity for growth is far greater than it would be for a player who has relied more on body than mind to succeed. Are you listening, Venus Williams?

No question, it's all upside for Hingis right now. The wins are coming, the players are hypnotized by her brilliance, the public is eating out of her hand. She has not yet incurred that wave of backlash which strikes all rising tennis players -- that whipping combo of peer resentment and public expectation. That first wave of hiccups will reveal even more of her character. We've seen mini-versions of it when the racket's gone flying.

When will we hear the first reports of her not accommodating a fan request?

What happens when she starts taking some bad losses? Does she have what it take not just to get to the top, but to stay there when the players are gunning for her?

But I also want to set the record straight on where Hingis currently stands.

The computer has made her number one, which at this point is more like turning her into "leading contender." There's no way Steffi Graf, with three Slams on the boards and the WTA Tour Championship, is anything less than the reigning queen of women's tennis. Only when Hingis unseats Graf at a Grand Slam can we truly call her number one. And then we'll see if she lasts longer than that interim champ, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. I suspect she will, but in no way will it be easy.

Graf, for one, is eager to remind Hingis who's in charge. While Hingis has gobbled up much territory in Steffi's injury-filled absence, Graf, who'll be 28 in June, figures to make at least one more 18 to 24-month play for the top. As the last two years have shown us, Steffi is profoundly resilient.

Say what you will about the way Seles was dominating tennis prior to her exile, Graf was the one who took those Slams by the throat and returned herself to the pinnacle.

Seles could potentially be an even bigger factor. Four years younger than Graf, Monica is unfortunately a weary and unbalanced 23, old in some ways, immature in others. In Oakland and at Lipton, Hingis made her look twice as old, repeatedly exploiting Monica's poor movement (particularly to the forehand) and tactical rigidity. It also hasn't helped her to watch her father dying of cancer. Seles now reminds me of Jimmy Connors after Arthur Ashe conquered him at Wimbledon in '75. The mystique's eroded, the players know how to beat her, her vulnerability has surfaced.

But like Connors, Seles is a great, tenacious champion. She may want to continue parading on desire and grit -- both of which she has in abundance.

But one hopes that she will also put her house in order by getting her shoulder fixed and perhaps discreetly looking for ways to enhance her game.

That quiet, yet forceful kind of R&D effort helped make Evert a far better player as a number two than she was at the top. One week after Lipton, playing Hingis at the Family Circle Cup, Seles tore through the first five games in 14 minutes to win the first set. Then, in the third, Seles overcame a 2-5 deficit to go up 6-5, 30-love. Even after Hingis forced a tiebreak, Seles went up 5-2. But when the dust settled, it was Hingis who won, spinning a facile serve into Seles' forehand that Monica netted.

I'd love to see a revitalized Seles make a go at Hingis. But I don't think Monica will ever be quite able to rid herself of all the emotional and physical baggage that has made her life and tennis so complicated.

Hopefully, in the next three years Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova will emerge as bonafide rivals for Hingis. Tennis-wise, Hingis is in grad school while these two are barely in high school. But the talent and potential is there. Carrying the school analogy further, Williams has built her career on ostensibly "skipping" secondary education and showing up to author a dissertation. The funny (or sad) part of it is that she could possibly pull it off. Venus is an explosive shotmaker, a powerful (albeit erratic) server and the kind of player impossible to establish a tempo against. What's disturbing, though, is to see that, for all the time she's spent away from tournaments in the practice laboratory, how unclean her strokes are. She slaps and muscles way too many balls, relying on her great quickness and size to extricate herself. This is too bad, because Venus is quite intelligent, engaging and still growing into her tennis body. Maybe at some point she'll be smart enough to tell her dad that she needs some quality coaching.

Kournikova is much more well-schooled than Venus. She's a better athlete than her current baseline game would reveal. But she's also received so much exposure and money that one hopes she actually does build on her groundstrokes to create the versatile brand of attacking game that would ruffle Hingis. The temptation, though, is to cash out and refuse to reinvest. The next 18 months will tell the story; that is, let's watch how Kournikova plays rather than get too concerned with her results. If she's rushing the net, playing doubles and adding variety, then she'll truly be laying the foundation for the top spot. If she just becomes a baselining pinup girl, she could become the Corel WTA Tour's Sabatini of the millennium: a leading contender who never quite becomes a champion. Please, Anna, avoid the All-Star Cafes for at least five years.

Some time in the next two years, Martina Hingis will officially unseat Steffi Graf as the top player in the world -- not just on the computer, but in every poll possible. Like every women champion, she will be considered too dominant, too chilly, more aloof than she needs to be. This could make for a troubled reign. There will be at least one regrettable faux pas. We'll learn more about her mother and the divorce from her father. She'll suffer a few disturbing losses. Williams and Kournikova will both rise. Other players -- Martinez, Davenport, Novotna -- will not be happy to see this little Swiss kid take charge, and they too will be motivated to whip her butt. Somewhere in this a romance will occur that will make us wonder if she's as focused as necessary.

I won't say that Hingis will be number one for five straight years. But she will be one of the game's premier players well into the next century. Her mind and commitment to learning will help her continually reinvest in sharpening her weapons, building up her weaknesses and attempting arresting strategies. Unlike Borg or Graf or even Evert, her chess players' approach to the game will not permit her the chance for burnout. In the spirit of a Navratilova, a Connors or King, she will relentlessly be delighted by the chance of putting her mind and body on the line. Anyone seeing her play will come away with a greater sense of tennis' possibilities than they ever dared imagine. That to me is the sign of a champion.

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Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2002 | 2003 - 2007


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This column is copyrighted by Joel Drucker, all rights reserved.

Joel's background includes 25 years as a player, instructor, tournament director and writer. His stories have appeared in all of the leading tennis magazines (Tennis, World Tennis, Tennis Week, Tennis Match, and Racquet). He has also written about tennis for many general interest publications, including Cigar Aficionado, Diversion, Men's Journal, San Francisco Focus and the San Diego Reader.


 

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