Federer fills the Hingis gap - The characters of the rising Swiss star and the recently retired one are far from being similar

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By (REUTERS) in Zurich
  • Published 9.07.03

Zurich: One was a media superstar who retired from top-flight tennis due to her injuries. The other is a down-to-earth hero whose time appears to have just begun.

When Roger Federer became the first Swiss man to win a Grand Slam title at Wimbledon on Sunday, there were inevitable comparisons with 1997 when his compatriot and one-time doubles partner Martina Hingis lifted the women’s trophy.

At 21, Federer is just one year younger than Hingis, but their careers and characters could not be further apart.

“They are two totally different personalities,” Swiss Tennis Federation president Christine Ungricht said.

Brought up on a rigorous diet of training and tournaments, Hingis hit the headlines young, becoming world No. 1 at 16 and attracting the media spotlight with her on-court tantrums and disagreements with her mother and coach Melanie Molitor.

Level-headed Federer, the softly-spoken man from the Basel region who was overwhelmed by his win, was tipped for stardom since becoming world No. 1 junior in 1998 but took his time to get to the top. His success is seen as a result of his close-knit team of trainer, physio, family and girlfriend.

“They followed totally different paths. But Martina and Roger are both exceptional players as they have to be to win,” Ungricht said. “Martina wrote sporting history in Switzerland but Roger is now doing the same.”

Hingis retired from the top flight after being dogged by ankle injuries and increasingly frustrated by her inability to handle today’s power hitters. In February she ruled out a return to spend more time studying at her home outside Zurich.

She hailed Federer’s win on Monday, telling Blick newspaper: “Congratulations! Roger was masterful, it was very impressive. Winning at Wimbledon is a fantastic feeling. Something unforgettable.”

Le Temps newspaper reflected on Hingis’ exit from the sport: “Even though it was unfinished, her work marked an era. ”Martina Hingis won everything, except Roland Garros. At 22, defeated by the wear and tear of power and the pressure of a new generation, she took her final bow.”

Now Federer’s 7-6, 6-2, 7-6 victory against Australian Mark Philippoussis on Centre Court, and the tears he shed at the prize ceremony, have cemented the media’s latest love affair.

“No, tennis is not yet dead! Roger Federer is the saviour who we’ve been waiting for,” the French-language Tribune de Geneve said on its front page, heralding the “Federer Era”.

Grounded feet

Observers say that Federer’s success lies in his ability to keep his feet on the ground in the dizzying whirl of tennis.

“I have known Roger since he was young,” Ungricht said. “He is a relaxed guy. He has a good relationship with the media, his statements are on the ball, he is very real and enjoys a joke.”

While his Swedish trainer Peter Lundgren and physio Pavel Kovac look after his fitness and his game, his 25-year-old girlfriend Miroslava Vavrinec acts as sponsorship agent and press officer. Federer is also his own manager.

“He is now marketing himself like a business,” Ungricht said. “He is his own man.”

His family also stress they never pushed him into the game. “We have never pushed Roger’s progress — really never,” his father Robert told Swiss media. “Even when he was just knee-high he was already running down the street with a tennis racket. Even today he still likes coming home, back to the family.”

Meteoric rise

Federer has said himself he is aware of the pressure to fill the void left by Hingis’ retirement, especially among young Swiss players inspired by her meteoric rise to the top.

“She’s only a year older than me,” Federer said earlier this year. “I’m just getting started now and she’d already achieved so much and just quit.

“Martina is still very well liked...but of course there was a lot of jealousies because she was so young, so famous, so rich, so good...it’s tough for Swiss people to accept that.”

Hingis, who was named after Martina Navratilova, picked up a tennis racket aged two and played her first professional tournament aged 14, inspiring a generation.

“Martina really created a trend in that she began training professionally when she was young,” Ungricht said.

But by taking the longer route to success, Federer has bought himself a certain wisdom and maturity in the process. But he will have to work hard to remain on top.

“Look at the professionals today: they play so much and are under so much pressure. It depends what kind of person you are, whether or not you enjoy it. But you have to work so hard to stay at this level. It doesn’t come for free.”