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Steve Flink: On Martina Hingis

10/28/2007 12:28:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When the startling news broke last week, I was returning home from lunch with my friend Dr. Thomas J. Lester, an astute sports fan with an affinity for tennis. We were in the middle of an animated conversation with the radio playing faintly behind us when a CBS broadcaster mentioned that a renowned tennis player was retiring after calling a press conference to announce that she had tested positive for cocaine use and was going to retire from the sport. I turned to the good doctor and asked, "Who was that guy on the radio talking about? Did you catch the player's name?" Dr. Lester said that, like me, he had not been able to hear who it was.

So I got home, went right on the computer and discovered, to my astonishment, that the player was none other than Martina Hingis, a five time Grand Slam singles champion who had concluded three years as the No. 1 ranked woman in the world. I sat there contemplating it all, trying to digest what had happened to this popular champion who had made such a stirring comeback in 2006 after leaving the game for nearly three years. She had finished that season back at No. 7 in the world, then moved up a notch this year to No. 6 before slipping to No. 19 a week ago after her body began breaking down, just as it had five years earlier. But now, in a press conference held in Zurich, Hingis was saying that she had tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon, where she had lost in the third round to Laura Granville.

Hingis explained that her "A" urine test had come back positive after her loss to Granville. She then elected to take a hair test which is designed to determine whether or not a person has taken cocaine. That result was negative. But then the "B" urine test results came back from Wimbledon, and once more she tested positive. So Hingis hired an attorney. "The attorney and his experts", claimed Hingis, "discovered various inconsistencies with the urine sample that was taken during Wimbledon. He is also convinced that the doping officials mishandled the process and would not be able to prove that the urine that was tested for cocaine actually came from me."

Having said that, Hingis went on to point out that, had she chosen to fight the charges against her, it would have become a legal tug of war and might not have been resolved for a number of years. "And that is the reason for my [retirement] announcement. I have no desire to spend the next several years of my life reduced to fighting against the doping officials. I am frustrated and angry. I believe I am absolutely 100 percent innocent. The fact is that it is more and more difficult for me physically to keep playing at the top of the game. And frankly accusations like these don't exactly provide me with motivation to even make another attempt to do so. I attempted another comeback after a three year break and succeeding in winning three tournaments, bringing my ranking back to No. 6 in the world. But, in the mean time, I am 27 years old and realistically too old to play top class tennis."

What she says here simply does not hold up under the harsh light of scrutiny. I am not cynical in the least, and I consider myself a long time admirer of Hingis, who brought so much joy to so many followers of the game with her almost incomparable strategic acumen and her sparkling creativity on the court. I don't like being critical of this woman, who represented both herself and the game so honorably for the most part over the years. By and large, she was a great credit to her profession.
But let's closely examine her comments in the previous paragraph. She does not want to spend several years fighting the charges against her, and yet claims to be completely innocent. Why would anyone who knows she is not guilty not be willing to fight on, however long it takes? Does anything matter more than fixing a damaged reputation?

What could be more important than clearing her good name? Why would she settle for ending her career on these miserable terms, with a dark cloud hanging over her and obscuring the brightness of her personality and accomplishments? If she is indeed being falsely charged, she owes it to herself to go through the legal process to set the record straight. At the same time that she is proclaiming her innocence, Hingis is talking about how it is increasingly tough for her to perform physically. She admitted later in the press conference that her bad hip has been a burden. Saying that being accused of using cocaine only discourages her from continuing along the competitive path makes Hingis sound disingenuous.

Maybe, as she said in her press conference, Hingis honestly believes she never has taken an illegal drug. But the evidence against her seems convincing. Both the "A" and "B" urine tests indicate cocaine use. So it is highly likely that Hingis did experiment at least once with cocaine. She is right on target when she points out that cocaine would not improve a player's performance on the court. So, if she used the drug recreationally, Hingis should have stood up and said, "I made a serious mistake as a professional athlete and I regret it. But to equate cocaine with steroids is ludicrous. Athletes have a responsibility to live and perform cleanly, but a player who takes steroids is cheating opponents and the public by gaining an unfair advantage; a player who uses recreational drugs like cocaine should be reprimanded, but not punished so severely."

Apparently, Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott believes Hingis, who realized she could be officially leveled with a long (perhaps two year) suspension and a monetary fine, may yet pursue the legal course. If that happens, if she does fight on, if she is really innocent, she is to be commended. The penalty does not fit the alleged crime. But she said precisely the opposite in her press conference, making it clear she did not want to go through a protracted legal battle. So was that just a charade? Perhaps, as has been the case with other athletes, Hingis is infuriated about getting caught and is determined to keep living in denial. Furthermore, she must fear that any long legal tangle could still turn out badly for her.

In any case, I am certain that tennis fans will ultimately judge Hingis fairly, and remember her largely for her admirable competitive qualities. Her career appears to be ending once and for all on a sour and terribly unfortunate note, but she celebrated a remarkably productive career of which she can be exceedingly proud. Crowds all over the globe found her immensely appealing. Nothing can change that fundamental point.

When I wrote my book called "The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century" at the end of 1999, I ranked Hingis No. 10 on my all time top ten list. She had already secured all five of her major singles crowns by then, but since that time Martina has been overtaken in my view by Venus Williams, Justine Henin and Serena Williams. Venus has captured six Grand Slam tournaments, Henin has taken seven, and Serena has eight in her collection. But, despite falling out of my all-time top ten, I believe Hingis deserves very high marks for her record.

To be sure, she should have won at least two more majors. How she ever lost the 1997 French Open final to Iva Majoli I will never know. Why she did not close out Steffi Graf in their pulsating clash in the 1999 Roland Garros final after serving for the match remains a mystery. The reasons why Hingis did not come away with more than three Australian Open singles titles despite reaching the final six consecutive years are beyond me. Clearly, with just a trace more luck, and an extra layer of conviction, she would have won the 2002 Australian Open championship match over Jennifer Capriati on an impossibly oppressive Melbourne afternoon when Hingis squandered no fewer than four championship points.

The fact remains that Hingis surely belongs on any top ten "Open Era" list for the last 40 years. The top five players during this span are surely Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Margaret Court, and Billie Jean King. Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Venus Williams would claim the next four slots. I would put Hingis at No. 10 on that list. So that puts Martina above some extraordinary players including Evonne Goolagong, Hana Mandlikova, Lindsay Davenport, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

Furthermore, it is too often overlooked by authorities that Hingis was a first rate doubles player who amassed no less than nine majors with six different partners in women's competition and one more in mixed doubles. Her hands at the net were excellent and her craftsmanship was just as impressive in doubles as what she displayed in singles. In 1998, with two different partners, she swept all four Grand Slam championships. Altogether, she took 42 career titles in singles and backed it up with 36 more tournament wins in doubles. That is no mean feat.

The hope here is that Hingis will change her mind and wage a spirited legal battle to fight the drug charges, or come forward some time in the future and admit she made a poor choice by taking cocaine. The vast majority of people would be more than willing to forgive her. Meanwhile, we should all sit back and remember that Martina Hingis was as resourceful a player as tennis has produced in the modern era, as cagey as they come, a champion who brought down bigger and better athletes with the strength of her mind and the size of her imagination. More than anything else, regardless of the cocaine charges, Hingis will be remembered in large measure for her originality and match playing prowess, and for her long record of good conduct and charm in the public arena.

Hingis had her share of ups and down across a shining career, but all the way through she was a pleasure to watch, in many ways a genius. As she said in her press conference, "My weapon on the tennis court is and always was one single thing: the game, the ingenuity on the court."

That point is non-negotiable.

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