by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — You see lots of ponytails in women’s tennis. Some of them will fool you. Take Monday at Wimbledon, a wet, cloudy day that was the grass-court equivalent of a soggy biscuit.

Across the net at Centre Court stood two female players, both in short white skirts and designer tennis tops — and both in ponytails. But on Martina Hingis, who’s 15, the hairdo was an extension of her teenage exuberance. On Steffi Graf, 27, the ponytail was all that remained of a carefree life.

Every few years you get these matches at Wimbledon, where the future meets the past to make the present more explosive. Graf, the defending Wimbledon champion, is still — despite the return of Monica Seles — the Reigning Superwoman of Tennis, whereas Hingis is the Next Little Girl Sensation. Graf lives in her own mansion in Germany. Hingis lives with her mother in Switzerland. Graf goes for impressionist paintings and moody photographs. Hingis lists her favorite movie as “Free Willy.”

They are at opposite ends of a pro career, but as they battled Monday — with Hingis, one of two players who have beaten Graf this year, coming alive in the second set, showing a strong backhand and fearless net play — they seemed very much tied into each other. At times, watching the coltish Swiss teenager rushing the net, you could say you saw an early Steffi-in-the-making.

You wonder what Graf would think of that.

Time takes toll in tennis

“Martina’s got a lot of talent out there,” said Graf, after finally disposing of the teenager, 6-1, 6-4, in a match that was interrupted continually by rain, playing more to the patience of a veteran than to the nervousness of a kid.

“She was really getting to the balls and trying very hard. The way she’s improved, there’s definitely a chance for her to reach the top five in the near future.”

“Do you get the feeling, when you play her, that this could be the start of something special?” Graf was asked.

She chuckled and pushed her blond hair out of her face. “You’re thinking too far ahead,” she said.

Maybe not. Things happen quickly. I can remember when it was Steffi — not Hingis — who mumbled into a microphone, too shy about her English to say very much. I remember when Graf and Gabriela Sabatini were tagged the “next Chrissy and Martina.” I remember when Steffi, barely out of high school, was linked romantically with freckle-faced Boris Becker, an affair the German tabloids created more than the players themselves. How cute, they thought. Our own Archie and Veronica. When Becker and Graf won Wimbledon in 1989, the headlines read “Blitzkrieg!” and their futures seemed as golden as their hair.

But time takes a heavy toll in tennis. Becker became a brooding, introspective adult, and Graf was saddled with a bad back, suspect feet, and a father who went from tyrant to adulterer to crook — all, ostensibly, while still managing his daughter’s career. Over the past two years, Graf has endured questions in press conferences about her father’s love affairs, about his charges of tax evasion, about his current life in a jail cell. At last year’s U.S. Open, she fled the interview room in tears. Is it any wonder that she finds sanctuary on the tennis courts, where she says, “There are no phones, no faxes, no news. Just me and my tennis”?

Of course, most of Graf’s problems come from tennis. Her phones and faxes ring because of tennis. Her body has taken a pounding since she began her pro career at 13. And the sins of her father are tied inexorably to her fame and her success, a classic case of domineering Dad taking too much credit and not enough care.

Isn’t it the ultimate irony that the root of her difficulties is also the only thing she really trusts? Not your normal teen years

Some would see Hingis on a similar path. Like Graf, her career is being dominated by a parent — her mother, Melanie. And though Mom declares that her daughter is perfectly normal, the fact is, Martina does not go to school (a tutor travels with her), she has bopped all over the world in her first year on the tour, and she is already the star of a major commercial in Japan. It is an ad for iced coffee, a drink you normally couldn’t get teenagers to try if you paid them.

“I was not nervous today. I had nothing to lose,” Hingis said after Monday’s match. “I am happier with my result this year than last year.” And it’s true, because she was eliminated last year by Graf in the first round, and this year it happened in the fourth. You have to call that improvement.

But toward what end? After her pro debut at last year’s Aussie Open, Hingis complained that her life was “tennis and more tennis.”

She hadn’t even turned 15.

There was a point during Monday’s match when Graf was teetering, having blown several match points. She gritted her teeth, looked at the ground, came back firing. The result was a series of blistering winners and aces that left young Hingis frozen and bewildered. During the last game — which Graf won at love — Martina actually laughed.

“Why were you laughing?” she was later asked.

“I had no chance anymore, that’s why,” Hingis said.

As she improves, laughing at defeat will become more difficult. Laughing at all may be tougher than she thinks. Ask Jennifer Capriati or Tracy Austin. Ask Monday’s winner, Steffi Graf, the uberqueen. The fact is, professional tennis — for all its fame, wealth and adulation — will rob you of your innocence, your patience, and most certainly your childhood. And all the ponytails in the world won’t change that.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!