When she first emerged on the professional tennis scene, Martina Hingis was an immediate sensation. I remember dabbling with putting together a sports magazine every week as a hobby project (this was 1996/97, i.e. back in the 20th Century, and the internet was still scientific jargon and phones had to be fixed on a corner shelf in the house) and one of the first ever covers I made was a photograph of a beaming Hingis, holding the 1997 Australian Open trophy, cut out of the newspaper and I put the clichéd headline ‘The Swiss Miss’ beside it. Inside, I had a lead story about her first Grand Slam triumph in Melbourne (at 16 years and 3 months she had just become the youngest Grand Slam champion in the 20th Century) and a single page feature on the tennis player destined to become a future great.
But things were to turn out very differently for the Czechoslovakia born naturalized Swiss tennis star and for my fandom of her. At a time when Steffi Graf and Monica Seles were slowly fading away the tennis world was screaming out for a new star and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hingis was born to be that replacement. Born to tennis crazed parents, who named her after THE famous Czech tennis star – Martina Navratilova – she held a racquet at age two, entered her first tournament at four and was a pro by the time she turned 14. She won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon at the age of 15 years and 9 months (in 1995) – the youngest of all time – partnering with Helena Sukova and winning the ladies doubles at The Championships. She won the singles title at Wimbledon in 1997, a year when she also added the US Open title to her tally along with my magazine featured triumph Down Under. She would go on to be the No. 1 ranked female tennis player in the world for 209 weeks and land another handful of Slam titles and finals. But my wide eyed wonder at that flashy smile, the quick movement around the court, the clever strokeplay and smart tennis began to wane triggered specifically by the final at Roland Garros in 1999.
She was a set up and three points away from victory against Steffi Graf in the final of the only Slam she was yet to win when she suffered an epic meltdown. Part of it was over frustration at a line judge call about which she had a nasty exchange of words with the umpire, part of it was the unforgiving Roland Garros crowd and how they reacted to her behavior, which, in her defence was mostly teenage petulance. She broke down and went on to even serve underhanded (if you want a sense of what an affront that is in pro tennis, the cricket equivalent would be Trevor Chappell’s underarm delivery against New Zealand when the Kiwis needed 6 runs off 1 ball) and finally lost the match. It left a very bad taste because she wasn’t being very generous to her opponents – including Graf, who she had dissed before the French Open saying “her time has passed” – in the press. She often made abrasive and insensitive statements, perhaps an unrefined verbal manifestation of the fierce competitive fire that burned inside her.
That fire, sadly, would burn her out as the new power tennis brigade led by the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters and others began to leave her behind. I pretty much ceased being a fan of Hingis at that point. My loyalties had always been with Graf, and after the Roland Garros incident, I did not think Hingis would ever endear herself to me as a tennis fan again.
Meanwhile, troubled by injuries she called it quits in 2003, at just 22. Then, in 2006, she made a comeback to the pro tour and picked up a title in Rome (she was, incidentally beaten by a young Sania Mirza at Seoul) and clawed her way back into the World Top 10, ending the year at No. 7. I was still a disinterested former fan. Disinterest turned to disgust when in late 2007 it was revealed that she was being investigated by the ITF for testing positive for traces of cocaine. She was handed a two year ban. The little girl who would chase every ball down, unleash backhands when her opponent least suspected it and hustle at every point seemed to have just given up and let it go. Why should I even care about her at this point? We expect our sporting idols to be Gods; but idols often have feet made out of clay.
By 2009, Hingis was ticking all the boxes in the ‘former celebrity desperately trying to cash in on past glory’ playbook as she participated in a couple of reality shows (the high profile one among them was of course her much publicized stint on “Dancing With The Stars” where she was voted out after the first week) and playing the occasional exhibition and invitational match. Her personal life was creaky too as she racked up a list of high profile relationships that flamed out. She married in 2010 but the marriage was soon on the rocks supposedly because Hingis cheated on her husband and there was a lot of acrimony between Thibault Hutin (her husband) and her mother, who had been her first coach and constant companion in her tennis journey. The couple separated in 2013. Amidst all this, she returned to doubles tennis and even won the invitational doubles at Wimbledon but I took almost no notice, to be honest. I had stopped paying attention since the 2007 ban.
I noticed Hingis back on court after she announced her pairing for women’s doubles with Sania Mirza. I have always followed Mirza’s career and more so since her smart pivot in 2009 at becoming a doubles player only to both prolong and enrich her career which worked very well. I’ll leave the technicals aside of how these two make a complementary pair on the court. But what struck me was Hingis’ body language. She looked relaxed and truly enjoying the game. She would flash that trademark smile almost after every point regardless of whether it was a great volley she had pulled off at the net for a winner or an embarrassing error from her or her partner. She would hustle for the point, giving us glimpses of the Hingis of old who moved so fluidly across the court. And I spotted flashes of that backhand that was so well known. After all she had been through – the multiple cycles of rise and fall from grace, the public scrutiny, the moral outrage – she had somehow found tranquility in the same endevaour she at one point absolutely loved and also the endeavour that threw a young girl into flaming mess that instant stardom usually fuels.
Is she seeking redemption through the tennis she is playing now? I don’t know. But watching her through Wimbledon 2015 where she has been stellar in her doubles title victory with Sania Mirza and her mixed doubles matches with Leander Paes has made me a fan again. She doesn’t have the perfect discipline of a Roger Federer, the open earnestness of an Andy Murray, the imposing record of a Serena Williams, the humility of a Rafael Nadal. She is pushing 35. (She once dropped her second doubles partner Jana Novotna saying she was “too old and too slow”.) So, what is there to root for her?
Maybe it is a way for making up for the unreasonable expectations everyone (yours truly included) had of her when she burst on to the scene 20 years ago. Maybe it’s a way of reconciling our own imperfections as we see someone emerge from them and kindle some kind of a hope for redemption, when about 8 years ago she seemed destined for a life in the former celebrity wilderness wacko zone that, say, a Britney Spears inhabits. There may be a million things wrong with the trajectory Hingis’ career and personal life have followed so far. As the great Rocky Balboa told us:
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!
Watching Hingis on Saturday night as she squeals in delight and jumps in joy as he rushes to hug Sania Mirza realizing she just won at Wimbledon again after 17 long years gives you some kind of rush; the kind that comes from seeing a fallen champion make an effort to rise.
Go Martina! I’ll be at your corner. Cheering.