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Steve Flink: Martina Hingis reflects on her sterling career

3/25/2013 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The women’s game these days is heavily populated by gifted athletes and potent shotmakers. The premium is—and has been for a long while—on power, and these players in the upper regions are knocking the cover off the ball. The pace of their shots can be overwhelming. And yet, the three women who reside at the top today—Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka—all bring a certain amount of variety and flair with them on the court. They are all great players who are highly enjoyable to watch because they have more versatility and court craft than many observers realize.

But no one on the horizon now has an imagination nearly as large as a former world No. 1 from Switzerland. None of the current leading players has anything like her tactical acuity and masterful strategic prowess. Not a single woman in today’s sport plays the game of tennis with the acute intelligence, clarity of vision, and the uncanny court sense of Martina Hingis, who will be inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island on July 13th. In the middle of last week, I spoke with Hingis by telephone about her sterling career, and she came across during the 28 minute interview with the same distinctive sense of self and well measured confidence that was once her hallmark on the court.

Hingis had a first rate career in every respect. She established herself unequivocally as the best 16-year-old ever to play the game, winning three of the four Grand Slam events in 1997, capturing 12 of 17 tournaments and 75 of 80 matches in that banner year. She took five career majors in singles, and twice reached the final of the French Open. She concluded three different years—1997, 1999, and 2000—as the top ranked woman in tennis, which was no mean feat. And, on top of all that, Hingis was an outstanding doubles player. While she secured 43 titles in singles on the WTA Tour, she added 37 more in doubles—including nine majors. She became only the fourth woman ever to win a Grand Slam in doubles, taking the 1998 Australian Open with Mirjana Lucic, sweeping the other three Grand Slam events with Jana Novotna.

As our conversation commenced, I wondered how much confidence Hingis gained from being such an extraordinary prodigy. She won two French Open junior singles titles—the first at age 12 in 1993—and also was victorious in the Wimbledon juniors in 1994. She turned professional in October of 1994, shortly after her 14th birthday. What was she expecting of herself as she came out of the juniors and joined the more diversified world of women’s tennis?

Hingis laughs before responding, “Well, it just became very natural winning. It becomes a habit, which is a really nice feeling. At that time I felt I had plenty of years left even if I had a bad year or some bad results. The most difficult part is always the transition from juniors to the senior level but that was pretty smooth as well. I had great matches with the top players early in my pro career but I wasn’t able to break through and stay at that level for a whole match. I always played well for a set or a set-and-a-half until I kind of burned through at 16 and was able to win those matches. I was a lot younger than the girls are today so you really feel you have so much time ahead of you and you are excited. I didn’t really like to practice that much but I loved going out and playing tournaments.”

In the spring of 1996, when she was 15, Hingis had a big victory over Steffi Graf at the Italian Open. Later that year, she played Graf in the semifinals of the U.S. Open and lost 7-5, 6-3, but the evidence was beyond dispute: Hingis was on the verge of performing at the very highest levels of the game. The match was much closer than the score, and the Swiss stylist could well have taken the opening set. She had five set points. Hingis recalls, “I had beaten some really good players along the way like Sanchez Vicario and Novotna. I had nothing to lose against Steffi and that was true against Sanchez and Novotna as well. I went into those matches without nerves. Yes, that was definitely important because I felt like I could play against the top players. I was very happy. I had a chance to win a set from Steffi which was really surprising. She was the top player in the world then. But I was a little tired because I was in the semifinals of all three events—singles, doubles and mixed doubles. I stopped playing mixed doubles after that.”

The strong showing against Graf and the feeling of belonging up there with the elite players led Hingis right where she wanted to be in 1997--- to the pinnacle of the sport. Was that kind of success beyond her wildest dreams, or was it a burden to live up to being the dominant force in the game at 16? Hingis responds, “At that point, you feel really unbeatable, like with Azarenka last year when she had a winning streak similar to mine in 1997 [Hingis won 37 matches in a row to start the season before losing to Iva Majoli in the French Open final, Azarenka won 26 in a row to start the 2012 season]. I was like, ‘Oh, hopefully somebody is going to beat her so she doesn’t beat my streak.’ Anyway, you feel like you are the only one who can beat yourself. I was my only opponent at that time because you have so much confidence. You go on court and you think that nothing can happen to you. You think you cannot lose these matches. That is what happened until I fell off the horse, and I became my own opponent.”

In April of that 1997 campaign, Hingis did indeed fall of her horse named Montana, and had a slight tear in a ligament in her left knee. But it required surgery and kept Hingis out of Hamburg, Berlin and Rome en route to Roland Garros. She won an exhilarating three set semifinal over three time former champion Monica Seles, but was clearly not herself in the shocking loss to Majoli. Did the horse riding accident cost Hingis the French Open and a possible Grand Slam? “I don’t know,” she answers. “Horses and skiing and those kinds of dangerous sports helped me in my life in general and it made me the person I was because I was very flexible with things. I was able to adjust to different situations and different moments. To me, riding the horse was part of training, part of being awake and aware of things. I feel like today people are very one symmetric and they don’t do enough off the tennis court. They just do fitness but they are not very flexible. They usually do one thing well and if there is something else it just gets them out of balance. I felt like there were not many things that got me out of balance because I was multi-tasked in a way. Doing so many sports helped me overall with my tennis.”

After that stellar 1997 season, she performed well again in 1998 and won a second Australian Open crown, but she finished the year No. 2 behind Lindsay Davenport, who upended Hingis in the U.S. Open final. Was it a letdown to be ranked second in the world after being so far ahead of the pack the previous season? Hingis replies, “The other players weren’t sleeping. The Williams sisters became more consistent and Lindsay Davenport lost like 20 pounds and became a better mover and a better player. You had Jennifer Capriati starting to play well again so there were a lot of factors. I was always pushing to improve but, of course, I had more to lose. The others got better, too. It was not like I got worse.”

That was clearly the case. Other players were elevating their games, providing sterner opposition for Hingis, making it that much harder to collect the prizes of consequence. And yet, she garnered a third Australian Open championship in a row to open the 1999 season, demonstrating that the hard courts “Down Under” suited her to the hilt, much like Andre Agassi in the men’s game. Hingis went to the final of the French Open for the second time and took on Graf for the title. She won the first set and, after disputing a line call by walking over to the other side of the net to check the mark early in the second, she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, reaching 15-0, standing three points away from completing a career Grand Slam. But, in the end, a buoyant Graf—propelled by a Roland Garros audience that was almost entirely on her side—came through to win her sixth and final crown on the red clay, and her 22nd and last major as well.

Asked to recollect that match, Hingis says, “That was probably the only match in my life that I wish I could replay. I got very emotional for whatever the reasons—the pressure, the crowd, whatever. And I had a great opponent on the other side of the net. It is not like you are playing a nobody. It is still Steffi Graf who won the tournament so many times. So I was fighting a few factors. I wish they would have had the Challenge system that they have today. But they still don’t use it on clay.”

I asked if she believed the Hawkeye Challenge System should be used on clay. “Yes,” she replied.  “Sometimes even the balls on [or near] the line you can’t see the mark. I say they should have the challenges on clay.”

In any event, before leaving the subject of the loss to Graf that could, Hingis said, “I feel like the French crowd is the toughest for anybody. I mean, if Federer plays Nadal in the finals they always go for the underdog, especially as you get older. They loved me when I made my comeback. I wish they had liked me as much when I was playing that final in 1999 as they did after my comeback. I wish I spoke French the way I can today. That probably would have helped.”

To many of us who were there that day and saw her move so close to winning before suffering such a difficult loss in the end, there was a consensus that Hingis was unlucky to lose—even if Graf was a resolute and admirable champion, and perhaps the best woman tennis player of all time. Hingis impressed me enormously when I asked if she had indeed been unlucky. She said unhesitatingly, “No, I don’t believe in luck in sports. You have to earn your luck.”

Despite that defeat, Hingis had an excellent 1999 season altogether, and finished the year back at No. 1 in the world. She won 71 matches that season—the most of any woman player—and was victorious in no less than seven tournaments. Hingis was then surrounded by an explosive brand of big hitters including a swiftly emerging Serena Williams, who beat her in the U.S. Open final. Venus Williams was peaking, and Davenport was in the summertime of her career. Of the seven final round losses Hingis experienced at the majors across her career, two were at the hands of Jennifer Capriati, two were against Davenport, and Serena Williams, Graf and Majoli all stopped her once. Only the Majoli loss was a fluke or hard to understand; the rest were justifiable considering the big games and large reputations of her adversaries.

“It was tough,” recollects Hingis. “You beat one of the big hitters with those top players and then you have to face another one. I could beat Venus one day and have to play the Serena the next so, or the other way around. That was hard. They were going for the revenge for the family. There was the one time I beat them back to back [at the 2001 Australian Open]. But then you have a Davenport so it was always tough to beat all those players two or three in a row for someone like me because I have to work and fight for the points while they just hit an ace or a big shot for a winner. Sometimes it was a little mental.”

Having said that, Hingis believes they all helped each other to progress. “We made each other better, I think. Everybody got better. Those matches I had against the Williams sisters, Davenport and Capriati were definitely some of the best matches of my life. Win or lose, I think we had great matches.”

That accurate analysis from Hingis led to an inevitable question. In 2002, she confronted Capriati for the second straight year in the Australian Open final. The Swiss stylist—who had been ousted by the American in a straight set final the year before—won the first set in the most oppressive of conditions in Melbourne, and moved ahead 4-0 in the second set. She had four match points later on. But a ferociously determined Capriati would not surrender, and Hingis was beaten 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 in a gripping contest.

Asked to travel back in her mind to that match, Hingis jovially says, “Don’t make me remember that! I was up 4-0 in the second set and then I had 4-2, 40-15. That is when I lost the match. For some reason I still had those match points but that was when I had lost the momentum. You can always have luck, but like I say I don’t believe in luck. Champions like Capriati won’t give it to you. You have to earn it. I believe I lost that match much earlier than at the match points. If I was up 5-2, probably I win it. Sometimes I watch some of my matches on YouTube like the French Open finals or when I beat Mary Pierce to win my first Grand Slam [title]. Those I watched but I didn’t look at the one with Capriati. I probably should.”

Near the end of the 2001 season in October, Hingis had undergone surgery on her ankle, returning with resolve at the start of 2002. She needed another surgery on her ankle in May of 2002, missing Roland Garros and Wimbledon that season. She was gone from the game for all of 2003 and 2004 and did not play another tournament until the end of November in 2005. She then made a remarkable comeback in 2006, rising as high as No. 6 in the world, finishing the season at No. 7, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian and French Opens. Her form declined in 2007, and her career ended that year, making her eligible this year for the first as a candidate for the Hall of Fame. Unsurprisingly and appropriately, Hingis was a first ballot choice for inclusion at Newport.

Of her comeback, Hingis says, “I didn’t think I could come back as quickly as I did, but things like that happen all the time. You see Rafa Nadal come back after seven months being absent this year. Once you are a champion you have it in your blood, you know what to do and you have your game. Once you are a champion you can always come back.”

How much had the game evolved after Hingis missed nearly three years? What did she notice most? “Obviously it got more physical,” she attests, “but it didn’t get more intelligent. The Williams sisters, Davenport, Capriati, Seles and myself: we knew everything about the game. We had the basics and we understood the game. We had a different view. Today the juniors don’t have enough education about the general stuff, the basics. I am helping girls now at the [Mouratoglou Tennis] Academy and I feel like what I am telling them today they should know when they are 10 or 12 years old. We all had a tennis education back then which I feel is a little bit gone today because they are drilling and hitting the ball as hard as they can. We had great respect for each other because you knew if you made one mistake you were going to be killed: you were gone. You could not get away with anything. The girls now are more physical, stronger and faster, but not faster than the Williams sisters. They are different. The technology has gotten better.”

Did anyone before or has anybody since made Hingis think of herself? She replies, “Before you had Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. They have a different game than mine and are more aggressive and go to the net more. I never played with Billie Jean but with Martina I have played some exhibition matches and she knows the game. She has great instincts. It is fun when we practice together because we both have knowledge of the game, and the same with Lindsay Davenport when we play Legends tournaments. Although we are completely different players, she is a great ball striker. Chris Evert and Tracy Austin also knew the game.”

Having said that, does Hingis believe her tactical acuity was something that came naturally to her, or did her mother and coach Melanie Molitor play a significant role in the shaping of Hingis as perhaps the premier thinking woman’s player of the modern era? She says, “I played a lot of matches when I was little, but of course my Mom was a great teacher and she taught me a lot of new things. You learn at a very young age and the patterns are there automatically. Because I played a lot of tournaments it did become automatic for me, but my Mom definitely had a big, big part in it.”

The interview was reaching the closing stages, so I asked Hingis about what playing doubles did for her game? She answered, “I preferred playing doubles to having to go out and practice again so definitely it helped me to be more aggressive and helped with my return game. Maybe toward the end of a Grand Slam it was wearing me out. It is tiring to have to sit around and wait to play doubles, but it was definitely for me a good solution.”

Hingis had phenomenal hands that made her a top of the line doubles player. Her reactions at the net were excellent and she had terrific feel on the volley. But if she could go back to revisit her prime, would she develop a bigger first serve? “More or less no, because I was pretty happy with my game. But the only thing is that today the serve is more important so I would probably spend more time today on my serve than I used to. But my Mom was scared that I would hurt my back in those days.”

Speaking of the serve, no one has surpassed Serena Williams in that department. Yet no one had a better forehand among the women than Graf. Which player would Hingis pick as the best she ever met? “With Steffi,” she says thoughtfully, “I felt like I had a chance when I played her. We had rallies. Sometimes with Serena with her big first serve and big first shot it was very tough. She was my least favorite opponent, and Lindsay, too. They were very similar.”

Time is short. Hingis has a crowded day with other commitments. But before she leaves, I ask her if she could select her most gratifying moment as a tennis player. Is there one major that stands out most prominently in her mind? She responds swiftly, “It was more the satisfaction of winning my first tournament in Filderstadt [in 1996] when I won my car. That was not a Grand Slam but it was pretty cool to win not only the tournament but the car.”
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.