A couple of days after being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame last Sunday, Martina Hingis, the holder of several youngest-ever records in the women’s game, announced that she was coming back to the WTA Tour to play the doubles event at the SoCal Open in late July, partnering with Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova.
Hingis has also entered the doubles events in Cincinnati, Toronto, New Haven and the US Open, setting off speculation that a singles comeback might be on the cards later this year.
Hingis turns 33-years-old in September, which makes her just a year older than current world No 1 Serena Williams; a year and a half older than world No 6 Li Na; and a whole decade younger than current world No 63 Kimiko Date-Krumm.
The Swiss Miss has been keeping herself busy of late, participating in the World Team Tennis League and in the legends doubles events at the slams, besides a short coaching stint with Russian player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Among her results in the World Team Tennis league this month, Hingis scored wins over Anna-Lena Gronefeld, Jill Craybass, Victoria Duval, Alisa Kleybanova and Eugenie Bouchard.
While none of these players are ranked in the top 50, Hingis’ wins over them show that she may be able to compete with some of the current competition on the WTA circuit — but would she be okay with just being another player ranked in the top 20 or perhaps top 50 and not contending for the grand slams?
The Swiss’ game is built on her genius-like court craft and excellent hand-eye coordination. But Hingis will always be vulnerable to the bigger babes in the game — the women who fire off the ground with power and precision. And there are plenty of those in the sport today. But the most important factor if Hingis is to attempt another singles comeback is if she will be able to fight when the chips are not in her favour.
And if her history is anything to go by, then the answer to that is a resounding no.
Hingis rose to the top of the game in 1997 as a 16-year-old, becoming the second youngest to win a grand slam in history and the youngest to reach the No 1 spot. But her rise was aided by the absence of a top rival. Steffi Graf, who had dominated the past few years, was out for most of the 97' season; Monica Seles was struggling with her weight and motivation while Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was on her way down. Lindsay Davenport and Jana Novtona had yet to win their first grand slams while those who had — Iva Majoli and Mary Pierce failed to win consistently enough.
The Williams sisters had yet to make their presence felt on the tour.
After sweeping to three grand slams in 1997, Hingis won only two more grand slams (the Australian Open in 1998 and 1999), as she struggled to keep pace with the power tennis onslaught brought on by the Williamses, Davenport and a resurgent Jennifer Capriati. Faced with adversity in the 1999 French Open final against Graf, Hingis let the crowd and her arrogance get the better of her and collapsed in a heap of tears on her mother’s shoulders.
By the end of 2002, Hingis was barely managing to hold on to her place in the world’s top 10. And by February 2003, she announced her retirement from the game, citing ankle and foot injuries. While there’s no question that the injuries were authentic, whether they were career-ending has always been a source of speculation. Having achieved so much record breaking success at the age of 16, it could be that Hingis was just not ready to accept a secondary role in the hierarchy of the sport and instead chose to withdraw from the game altogether.
But she wasn’t done yet.
In 2006, Hingis, then 25, announced her comeback to the sport. While there were no singles grand slams in her second innings, she did pretty well peaking at No 6 in the rankings, winning titles in Rome, Kolkata and Tokyo, reaching the quarter finals of the Australian Open (twice) and the French Open, winning a grand slam mixed doubles title and scoring wins over Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Davenport, Dinara Safina,Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva and Li Na.
But by the time the US Open came around in 2007, Hingis was feeling the effects of niggling injuries and the pressure of early losses once again. So in November 2007, Hingis announced that she was retiring from the sport for a second time when the ITF found that she had tested positive for cocaine during Wimbledon that year.
Hingis strongly denied the accusations but said she did not want to waste years trying to appeal it. "I have no desire to spend the next several years of my life reduced to fighting against the doping officials. 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 such as these don't exactly provide me with motivation to even make another attempt to do so."
Once again, faced with an adverse situation, Hingis copped out. Frankly, it’s hard to think of another five-time grand slam champion who would have not fought to clear their name if they were wrongly accused of something like that.
Now, six years later, Hingis has once again announced a comeback to the sport, albeit only in doubles. The Swiss Miss will play four events leading up to the US Open and many are speculating if this could be the precursor to a full-fledged singles comeback.
Perhaps Hingis is testing the waters of what it might be like back on the tour before making her intentions public. Or perhaps, she has no intentions of playing singles again and wants to just play doubles. That might be a smarter choice too.
If Hingis does attempt a singles comeback, there will be roadblocks and adversity once again. And while the Swiss has shown that she has magical hands and court craft par excellence, her ability to fight like a champion when the going gets tough is suspect. Which makes one wonder just how different her career could have been if she was more of a fighter.