Originally created 04/01/97

Hingis on tennis hot seat



HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Arantxa Sanchez Vicario says women's tennis has become more interesting because of one of its youngest competitors.

Vicario, who will start defense of her Family Circle Magazine Cup title this week, says Martina Hingis, the newest and youngest No. 1 player in the game, will only bring more excitement to the sport.

"I think it's great for the game that she has become No. 1 so young," Vicario said. "We need her and it makes it more interesting."

Hingis checked in at the top of the Women's Tennis Association computer rankings Monday off her victory at the Lipton Championships this past weekend. She surpassed Steffi Graf, who has been off the circuit with an injury.

Now, Hingis will meet the Sea Pines clay, where women pros first came in 1973 for the unheard of $30,000 first prize. The winner's share has grown more than five times since in the tournament, while these days players seem to progress to the top in record time.

Graf, Monica Seles, Vicario and Jennifer Capriati all shot to prominence as teen-agers, but none has had the impact of Hingis.

The 16-year-old Swiss girl is 26-0 this season with five tournament titles.

Vicario has felt the pressure of No. 1. She was tops in the world two years ago. But at the Family Circle she twisted her right ankle and missed the next six weeks, losing her top position.

Vicario says life changes once you take the favorite's role. Slipups are no longer accepted and everyone else on tour get pumped to beat you.

"She had nothing to lose. Now we'll see how she reacts to everything and if there's a difference," Vicario said.

Hingis lost to Vicario 0-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the opening round here last year.

So far, the teen-ager has stayed free of the pressures of big-time tennis. She sometimes loses her temper, but afterward is as charming as a high-schooler on Spring Break.

At the Lipton Championships, she talked of how she's felt nearly unbeatable. "It's kind of funny that everybody's expecting my first loss," she said. "I'm just trying to keep going and not to lose."

Vicario says Hingis has shown speed and anticipation that has led to her dominance. "She is also very fresh mentally," Vicario said. "That's different about her."

To triumph here would be an accomplishment. Graf is the only one of the top 10 players missing. Plus, there's the abrupt shift from hard courts to the slower, dustier clay.

Vicario says, though, that players use this week on the South Carolina coast to kick back from a hard winter season and pressure-packed Lipton. Some players consider that the sport's fifth major.

Should Hingis show well, she'd join a list of other young stars who made a mark at Hilton Head. Gabriela Sabatini at 14 reached the quarterfinals in 1985, while a teen-aged Graf beat Chris Evert here the next season. Capriati made the finals in her 1990 pro debut at the Family Circle.

"This tournament seemed to have established a reputation for being a showcase for new talent," Evert said. "Moreso than other tournament I can think of."