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.
PARIS — 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.
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.
WTA officials solicited testimony from players, coaches, agents, spouses, friends, staff, and the news media to help identify the stresses of the tour.
Tour officials guessed that the No. 1 problem would be parental pressure, but the players said the toughest problem on the tour was dealing with the news media.
"We were just putting kids up in front of journalists with no preparation. We'd just say, 'You're turning pro, so go do that interview.' In fact, it's hard for new players, especially dealing with critical questions or coping with what's being written about them," says Kathleen Ann Stroia, director of Sport Sciences and Medicine with the Corel WTA Tour.
"For example, one young player developed a severe eating disorder after a journalist asked her why she was looking heavier on the court. Now we're helping prepare players for these interviews, and trying to listen more carefully to their problems," she adds.
Parental expectations ranked as the No. 2 problem on the tour, followed by injuries, agents, loneliness, the stress of competition, and night play, which the tour now limits.
"We think we're on the right track, and other women's sports, such as gymnastics and figure skating, are beginning to follow our lead," says Stroia.
Some players disagree with the new age restrictions on play. Veteran champion Steffi Graf questions the new rules that limitCroatian player Marjana Lucic.
"I couldn't believe she's not playing this tournament," says Graf, referring to this year's French Open. "She doesn't seem like a 15-year-old. She's grown quite a bit, and I don't see why she shouldn't be playing here."
But many others say that they welcome the new changes. German player Marketa Kochta turned pro at 14 and says she thinks that was too early. "Young players don't realize how hard it is to be on the tour, traveling, waiting for matches, and dealing with losing. When you're 14, you don't think about it. You're hungry, you don't get nervous. But sometimes now when I think I don't want to play any more, I wonder if it's because I started too soon," she says.
But despite new curbs on the youngest talents, the Mozarts of the court keep coming, such as the Russian Anna Kournikova, and Venus Williams, who is playing in Europe for the first time and won her first match at the Open.
Williams is a good example of the new thinking on teen pros. She has been written about in the tennis press since she was 11, but her father deliberately kept her out of junior events to make sure she developed a good education. It also helped create a great deal of excitement about her French Open debut. "She's taking the sport by storm," says WTA spokesman Jim Fuhse.
In the past, women's tennis was dominated by a few great stars at a time: Billie Jean King and Margaret Court Smith, or Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Many games were measured in minutes, rather than hours, and top players didn't expect to meet much competition until the final rounds of a tournament.
Then came big money and a new wave of state-of-the-art conditioned athletes. Advances in equipment speeded up the game and showcased more power and athleticism. "There used to be one or two great women at a time in the sport. If those two weren't involved in a tournament, tennis suffered. Now we have many more players who can carry a tournament," says Fuhse.
This year's French Open, where women are celebrating their 100th year in competition, has never been more open. The winner could be Martina, Steffi, Venus, Anna, or Monica Seles, Jana Novotna, Lindsay Davenport, Anke Huber, Iva Majoli, Mary Pierce, Chanda Rubin, or Jennifer Capriati, child star back on track. And that's just for starters.