Teen-age Girls are the Tigers of French Open
Women's tennis has its young stars, but the game hasn't always been kind to them.
Call her tennis's Tiger Woods. Her embroidered white Tacchini jacket says simply "Martina," and at 16, she's the ace of women's tennis.Skip to next paragraph
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Martina Hingis headed into the French Open in Paris this week with the No. 1 ranking, the youngest player ever to hit the top of the pro tennis circuit; the youngest to win $1 million in a year; and the youngest to win a Grand Slam tournament - the Australian Open in January. With five tournament wins, she is also unbeaten this year.
She doesn't hit the ball as hard as veteran Steffi Graf or the new American prodigy Venus Williams, but she's light on her feet, hits balls on the rise, and gets to all of them - crosscourt, down the line, game, set, match. She makes the game look easy and fun.
And then there's that smile. It starts with the eyes, sweeps down across her face, and then sparkles to the far corners of a pressroom - or a center court stadium.
"Me, pressure? No. Why? I just go on the court and try to play my best. If it's going to work, it's great. If it's not going to work out, there are so many other tournaments to play," she tells journalists on the eve of the French Open.
Big tennis sponsors and Women's Tennis Association tour officials hope she stays that way. Bright new child stars are good for tennis, and women's tennis is suddenly full of them.
"All our players now can hit all the shots, but the great players, like Martina Hingis, can hit them from anywhere to anywhere at any time, even on center court," says Brenda Perry, director of the WTA.
The professional circuit has not always been kind to its brightest young women stars. Tracy Austin appeared on the cover of Tennis magazine at the age of four, beat everyone in sight, then retired early after injuries.
Another pigtailed comet, Andrea Jaeger, complained that it was hard for a 14-year-old to make friends on the tour, sustained injuries, and quit young.
Jennifer Capriati started winning major tournaments at 13, and then bounced on and off the pro circuit with personal problems. She's now making a comeback after a two-year layoff. Injuries, tears, tantrums on the court, and "motivational problems" all add up to the malady tennis tour directors and million-dollar sponsors most dread: burnout.
Women's tennis has had too much of it, and the tour is determined to do something about it.
"Because these young girls were having to grow up faster, they also burned out faster. The tour had to do something to keep big names in the sport, and we could only do that by helping to keep the schedules sensible. The new women stars will be 16 to18 years old, not 14 to16, as in recent years," said an agent for several top players, who asked to speak anonymously.
Unlike other sports with pint-sized wonders, like gymnastics or figure skating, there's very little down time from competition in professional tennis. Teens are now playing 11 months a year, facing hotel rooms, long hours on the road, night matches, win-hungry parent-coaches, and journalists with just one more question about why you missed that key point or how it feels to live through the "agony of defeat."
The strains are tougher on women pros than on the men, because women start competition at an earlier age. Last year, there was only one man under 20 in the top 100 on the men's tour. There are 26 teens on this year's women's tour.
"It's a matter of strength. There's no way a 14-year-old boy could play a 20-year-old man, but 14-year-old girls are competitive in our sport," explains Perry.
The problem for the women's tour was to help ensure that the 14-year-olds play into their 20th year. One part of the WTA Tour's strategy is a new age-eligibility rule: No pro play before age 14, and a graduated, restricted schedule through age 18. Youngsters who started playing before Jan. 1, 1995, were grandfathered into the new system.