Thursday, October 26, 2017

The lesson of Martina Hingis

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees
I began following the WTA when I was a very young woman, and after many years—having lived through Chris and Martina, and Steffi and Monica, I felt burned out. I left the WTA behind, but I was lured back by Martina Hingis. Who was this other Martina that I heard about all the time? I had to find out.

It turned out that she was exactly what I wanted to see—a prodigy who could read the court like a complex story, and who relied on her way-beyond-her-years instincts. “Plays like Hingis” is now part of the tennis vernacular, and it refers to those players who see the tennis court as a kind of board game and can provide ongoing strategy to advance their games. Anna Chakvetadze was such a player, as is Dasha Kasatkina.

The young Hingis, however, had her problems. Her emotional maturity wasn’t as advanced as her tennis maturity, she had chronic foot issues (which she said were caused by her shoes), and then she had the Williams sisters. Venus and Serena, and several who followed them, used power to get around Hingis’s cleverness, thus rendering her less effective. I would rather watch a Martina Hingis (or a Patty Schnyder or a Simona Halep) over a power player any day, but tennis equipment changed, as did tennis culture.

Having undergone two foot surgeries, Hingis retired from pro tennis in 2003, at the age of 22. It was a surprising turn of events, despite what we knew about her struggles. But two years later, she made a crack at returning. It didn’t go well, so she confirmed her retirement. But then, in 2006, she made a very dramatic return by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australain Open, an event she had won three times. She also won her first-ever major mixed doubles title in Melbourne.

Hingis did so well in her comeback that she qualified for the WTA Finals. In 2007, Hingis again reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and for the second year in a row, she was eliminated by Kim Clijsters. Later that year, she would have to deal with injuries again, but she would also have to deal with something much worse: A cocaine metabolite had been discovered in a drug test she had taken that summer. The amount of metabolyte was so small, Hingis insisted that contamination was the cause.

The ITF responded by giving the Swiss star a two-year suspension (the “Katy Perry defense” was unknown at the time). Hingis responded by retiring from the sport. It was a sad, nasty occurrence, but one couldn’t blame her for just saying to hell with the whole thing.

Hingis returned to exhibition play and to World Team Tennis in 2010, and in 2013, she returned to the WTA tour as a doubles-only player, and she also did a bit of coaching. her third career has been a resounding success. She is currently ranked number 1 in the world in doubles, just as she was 20 years ago. And in closing that circle, this week, the great Martina Hingis retired from professional tennis. Again. And, we can assume, for the final time.

In her very lengthy career, Martina Hingis won five singles majors, and was seven times a runnerup. She won 13 doubles majors and was a runnerup on three occasions. Hingis also won seven majors in mixed doubles. She won 43 singles titles in her career, and has won 64 doubles titles; however, by the end of the week, that number is likely to jump to 65, as she and partner Chan Yung-Jan are very likely to win the WTA Finals in Singapore. The Swiss master reached the number 1 ranking in both singles and doubles, and she has won so many awards and broken so many records, I don't have the space to list them.

The 37-year-old Hingis, who is also an accomplished horsewoman, says that she knows she will continue to be involved in tennis. I wouldn't be surprised if she returned to coaching.

Many of us watched Martina Hingis grow up, and some of what we saw wasn't pretty. But she persevered--through emotional immaturity, to serious injuries, to a major change in the game that threatened to leave her behind, to a highly questionable drug ban, to the rigors of making two comebacks. She persevered. She accepted what she could do well and what she could no longer do quite as well as she once had. And though I don't usually use this metaphor, in Hingis's case, it's appropriate to say that she kept getting back on the horse.

Quick and clever on and off the court, Martina Hingis never really gave up--she just took breaks. Whether she was a teen phenom, a Spice Girl, a comeback wonder, or an enduring legend enjoying a late career zenith, she adjusted to the times, and believed in her talent. There is much to learn from Hingis's unusual career arc, and for that, we can be grateful. But we can be even more grateful that for two decades, we watched the Swiss Miss light up the tour with the brilliance of her tennis.


colt13 said...

Good stuff.

I actually think she will be a better coach now, because she will be more focused. She seemed to use coaching as scouting for her potential doubles partners.

Diane said...

Thanks, colt.

And I agree that, if she coaches (and I kind of think she will), she can relax and do that one job.

jwr said...

This is poignant for me. Her record against the Williams sisters and other power players was better than most people remember, but the real problem (at least as far as I could see) was she too often abandoned the game that made her great and, for whatever reason, started trying to slug it out with them. And she was just good enough at it to keep losing close matches. I always thought if the injuries hadn't happened she would have eventually adjusted back to the game her mother taught her, and, much the way Evert did with Navratilova, fought back to parity. Alas, we never got to find out. It was a standout career in any case, but, like you, I lament the transition from ballet dancers with magic wands to cloggers with sledgehammers and her retirement puts a capstone on the kind of tennis that made me a fan (at ten, following my quasi-neighbor, Ms. Evert, on the front pages of the newspaper--not the sports section, in 1971) in the first place.

Nondisposable Johnny

Diane said...

I agree completely, Johnny. I, also, wanted her to get even better at “being Hingis” instead of trying to fight a battle she couldn’t win. The Evert comparison is spot-on, too.

Shalini said...

I am not loving the narrative that casts the Williams sisters as brutish sluggers but other than that appreciate the review of Martina's career and her many accomplishments on the court.

Diane said...

I hear that, and to be clear, I don’t consider Venus and Serena brutish sluggers; they both have very well-rounded games in every respect. My issue is with the post-wooden racket emphasis placed on power over everything else. The tour has had many “power players” that have bored me to distraction. What I’m seeing these days is hopeful—power players are learning how to use finesse, also. (Serena would be a nice role model for that.)