Tennis’s ‘other’ Martina is pretty special too
THE small nation of Switzerland has, it seems, something of an unnatural proficiency in producing world-class tennis players. With a population of eight million, it has produce the best player in the history of the game in Roger Federer, the current French Open champion Stan Wawrinka and two women inside the world’s top-15, Timea Bacsinszky and Belinda Bencic.
Yet it is arguable that none of these four has enjoyed the best year among the Swiss players. Rather, that accolade goes to Martina Hingis, who won five grand-slam doubles titles in 2015, taking her total number of grand-slam wins to 20.
Hingis has been around forever. Literally – well, OK, not quite, but it feels like it. She burst on to the tennis scene in 1995 when, as a 15-year-old, she won her first grand slam – the women’s doubles at Wimbledon alongside Helena Sukova.
A few months later, the teenager claimed her first major singles title at the Australian Open, becoming the youngest grand slam singles winner of the 20th century at 16 years and three months.
A slew of further records followed. In March of 1997, Hingis became the youngest world No.1 in the history of the game. Then, that summer, she became the youngest Wimbledon champion since 1887. A US Open crown followed with only defeat in the French Open final denying her the coveted calendar grand slam.
Hingis’ emergence was like a breath of fresh air to the sport; her sublime court craft, her tennis brain and her finesse were unlike anything women’s tennis had ever seen.
But her reign at the top was relatively short lived – her grand-slam singles title haul reached five but a raft of injuries, including two ankle surgeries, and the arrival on the scene of more powerful players such as the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati made Hingis’ life more and more difficult. At the age of just 22, she retired from the game. Hingis staged a comeback in 2005 but it was wholly unsuccessful. She did not come close to adding to her grand slam singles tally and her return came to an ignominious end in 2007 when she tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine.
The amount detected was tiny and Hingis claimed the substance was in her system as a result of contamination rather than intentional ingestion but she was suspended from tennis for two years nevertheless.
While it was Hingis’ singles prowess for which she was hailed as one of the all-time greats, her doubles game was, arguably, even more impressive. Her anticipation, positioning and deftness of touch made her one of the greatest doubles players the game had ever seen but there was one drawback; to win at doubles you must play with someone and Hingis struggled to hold down partnerships.
She completed the doubles grand slam in 1998, winning three of those titles with Jana Novotna but she unceremoniously dumped the Czech the following year, calling her “too old and too slow”.
A partnership with Anna Kournikova was then struck up but even two grand slam titles were not enough to keep the pair together with a shouting match over who was “the queen”, ending the partnership. What she had already achieved in her tennis career would have been more than enough for most but not for Hingis and she made a second comeback in 2013.
Initially, it appeared to have been an unwise decision but 2015 has proven Hingis’ judgment to be entirely sound. Two women’s doubles and three mixed doubles titles have been won this year and this weekend, the Swiss, ranked No.1 in the world with Sania Mirza of India, will aim to finish her year in style with victory in the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore.
It is rare that comebacks are judged an unmitigated success but Hingis’ latest one cannot be seen as anything else. She looks more relaxed and carefree in this incarnation than she ever has and her current renaissance shows no sign of slowing down.
Her five grand slam titles in 2015 have ensured that she has earned more money than established singles players such as Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and Ana Ivanovic, with the Swiss raking in more than $1.5m this year alone.
Remarkably, Hingis has only recently turned 35. She is just a year older than Serena Williams and with doubles considerably less taxing on the body than singles, there seems little reason why she cannot maintain this level of success for a considerable time.
A return to singles has been ruled out – the game has moved on to such an extent that Hingis could not compete with the powerhouses who now dominate women’s tennis – but there is unquestionably something heartening to see a player of Hingis’ calibre dominate the circuit, albeit the doubles circuit, 20 years after her debut.
TOMORROW Hugh MacDonald
It is heartening to see someone of Hingis’ calibre dominating the circuit, even in doubles, 20 years and two comebacks later
PICTURE THIS: Title winners Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis pose for a selfie at the Wuhan Open in China.