Ten­nis’s ‘other’ Martina is pretty spe­cial too

The Herald - Sport - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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