Sports Watch

Young phenoms with nerves of steel

Hingis’s mother schooled her to believe she was born to be No. 1. So she’s never surprised when victory beckons.

Trent Frayne August 18 1997
Sports Watch

Young phenoms with nerves of steel

Hingis’s mother schooled her to believe she was born to be No. 1. So she’s never surprised when victory beckons.

Trent Frayne August 18 1997

Young phenoms with nerves of steel

Hingis’s mother schooled her to believe she was born to be No. 1. So she’s never surprised when victory beckons.

Trent Frayne

Sports Watch

The media guide for the pro golf tour notes that the way to pronounce Stewart Cink’s surname is this: Sink. See, Cink is a mighty odd name and the media guide wants to stamp out obfuscation. Sports moves so fast these days that unknowns become headliners overnight.

Think of Justin Leonard, the 25-year-old stoic who won the British Open on the links of Royal Troon last month. Think of Gustavo Kuerten, the freshest breeze in tennis, the French Open champion. And think of the game’s new queen, Martina Hingis, all of 16. Youths, all of them, performing with nerves of steel, knowing how to win under tall scrutiny.

In Montreal in early August at the Canadian Open, the wacky Kuerten, unknown three months ago before invading Paris, destructed the human rubber ball Michael Chang, No. 2 in the world, 6-3, 6-1. The same week in California, the child-queen Hingis beat the once-queen Monica Seles for the fifth straight time, lengthening her 1997 record to 54 matches won and one match lost, including Grand Slam triumphs at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

How do they get this way, apparently oblivious to pressure? As it turns out, in a variety of ways. Some, like Hingis and the practically legendary Tiger Woods, a world figure at 21, were raised by parents convincing them almost from birth that they’re invincible. Accordingly, they expect to win, aren’t awed by the prospect.

Other winners find other means. For instance, when last seen the aforementioned Cink is up to his calves in the rough at the Greater Hartford Open. He’s the leader by a shot and it’s the 71st hole. At the clubhouse stands his wife, Lisa, with their two small kids. Also awaiting the winner is a sobering cheque for $270,000 (U.S.). So, 148 yards from the pin, all papa has to do to provide the tiny tots with lifetime Corn Flakes is delicately clear a lake in front of the green. If he’s short, he’s in the drink; if he’s long, the ball flies beyond a narrow green.

Is Cink sunk? No. He pulls out a nine-iron and hits an almost perfect shot. The ball clears the lake, lands on the green and rolls within easy putting distance of the cup. And when Cink pars the final hole he has won for the first time on the PGA Tour.

Soon a breathless TV interviewer wants to know about the shot. “Boy, that was a tough one,” says Cink, 24 last May, a drawling Alabamian with a chin dimple. “I knew I had to make it if I was going to win. But I thought, ‘I might never be in this position again. Might as well go for it.’ ”

The six-foot, four-inch Cink scoops up his two kids. He adds that the example of his friend Justin Leonard winning at Troon helped, too. Physically, little Justin is no match for big Cink, seven inches

shorter and 45 lb. lighter. But mentally he’s a winner who has also prospered by the example of others.

At Troon he told Canada’s premier golf writer, Lome Rubenstein: “Having seen Tiger Woods do so well, and not only Tiger but Ernie Els and others also, maybe I thought it’s OK to go out and win a tournament like this being the age I am. So maybe that was in the back of my mind.”

Mention of Tiger, of course, introduces the most phenomenal story in golf’s history. His father, Earl, a lieutenant-colonel in the Green Berets who made two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, recalls how Tiger (his square name is Eldrick) at 11 months stood in his crib with a sawed-off club and imitated his father’s golf swing, and how at 4 he won money from disbelieving golfers 10 and 20 years older. And now he seems able to calmly handle enormous expectations, attention and adulation.

He’s helped, apparently, by peace in Buddhism taught by his Thai mother, Tida. ‘Tiger has Thai, African, Chinese, American Indian, and European blood,” Tida says. “He is the universal child.”

Nothing quite so grand has described the child-queen Martina Hingis but, like the Tiger, she was parent-inspired. She was born in Kosice in what is now Slovakia and named Martina by her Czech mother Melanie, who idolized another Czech, the former champion Navratilova. Melanie left her husband when Martina was 3 and began coaching her in tennis. She moved to Switzerland when Martina was 7. Now, at 16, Martina has remarkable court sense that provides uncanny anticipation. Her mother schooled her to believe she was born to be No. 1. So she’s never surprised when victory beckons.

Unlike Hingis, the impish Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, a gangling beanpole of 20, has not been on the tennis scene long enough for fans to know what ignites his resolve. But as CTV commentator Martin Wostenholme, former Canadian No. 1, noted when Kuerten blew away Chang in Montreal: “He goes for his shots, he’s not scared, and nobody has a backhand like Kuerten’s.” Gustavo lost narrowly in the final, trading rockets with a fast-climbing American, Chris Woodruff, at 24 an engaging study himself.

Until recent months, Woodruff owned a big game but an inability to finish off opponents. He had turned pro in 1993, coming out of the University of Tennessee at 20, but won a measly $133,000 in four years on the courts. Then he entrusted his tennis brain to a sports psychologist who got him thinking positively in a weird way, fantasizing that he was going toe-to-toe with a fighter.

In the Montreal final, handling Kuerten, he sat erect during changeovers with a white towel draped over his head and shoulders, his mind wrapped in concentration. Then he’d go out and hammer winners.

Now that’s psychological.