Martina Hingis has gone willingly this “third and final” time, as she calls it, choosing to exit while still at the top of the doubles game. But if the twilight act of the 37-year-old’s career has been a triumph, the first, particularly, was always going to be exceptionally hard to follow.
The young Martina, named after another, Navratilova, was a revelation, and the well-told story of the Swiss prodigy who won the French Open juniors at 12 and first Grand Slam match at 14. Her first Australian Open title and two other majors while reaching No.1 as a 16-year-old seems perhaps even more extraordinary now.
“Martina was partially the one who showed me how it was all done,’’ said Roger Federer of his original Hopman Cup partner, one genius to another, both giants of the sport, but in different ways.
Diminutive in stature, Hingis anticipated what few opponents could predict, saw angles and opportunities where others could not, boasted touch, nimble footwork and unteachable court smarts; was almost a chess player with a racquet she could wave like a wand.
She was also an outspoken, sometimes controversial figure, not one to bother false modesty, or even diplomacy, often. Describing Amelie Mauresmo as “half a man’’ was among the lowlights and, around the time of her famous finals meltdown at the 1999 French Open, Hingis was described by Sports Illustrated as “a thoroughly disagreeable brat”.
If so, she still made for reliably entertaining copy, throughout her early Australian visits and also during her first comeback: at the Australian Women’s Hardcourts on the Gold Coast, where she resumed after an injury-enforced absence of more than three years, still just 25.
Hingis had tinkered with her game, seeking more stick on her groundstrokes and trying a new-look serve to help generate extra pace. “She’s got the other (ingredients) that no one else has got, basically, which is the unbelievable racquet control and the court sense, which you can’t teach, so that’s taken care of,’’ tournament director Liz Smylie said at the time. “It’s the power.”
Without quite enough of it there would be no additions – despite reaching five further major finals – to her five Grand Slam singles titles owned by the age of 18, with singles stage-two ending after a positive test for a metabolite of cocaine at Wimbledon in 2007. By then, it had become harder to compete with bigger hitters such as Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, and second fiddle was not her preferred instrument.
When Hingis returned as a doubles-only specialist in 2013, she retained her competitive ambition and thirst for excellence, but on a stage where her exquisite skills and tennis IQ were once again paramount. Her finesse, incomparable hands and tactical nous complemented Sania Mirza’s fierce forehand as the pair swept three of the four majors and won 41 consecutive matches in a remarkable run through 2015.
On Saturday, 23 years after it all began, the girl who had been such a natural finished as the woman at the summit of a different mountain, with plans to ski and ride horses, a remarkable career having boasted 209 weeks at No.1 in singles and 70 in doubles, 29 of them concurrently, with 25 majors among 107 titles overall.
Regrets? No point, or need, and not her style, anyway.
“I think overall I’m very proud of my career, and I wouldn’t change with anybody for anything,” said the player who departs for a third time adamant it will be the last, confident that her timing is perfect. This is Martina Hingis. Of course it is.
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