Crafty, cunning and devastating: French Open provides another chance to savour Martina Hingis

I suspect like many others, my tennis fandom is best described as "casual" except for those intermittent stretches when it swells into a feverish bout of devotion. In other words, my tennis fandom notably increases during the Grand Slam tournaments.

In some ways tennis is reminiscent of how I consume cricket ODIs. There are so many tennis tournaments, basically every week somewhere in the world, dotting the calendar that it’s hard to be enthused by all the matches, especially those with little significance.

Just as ODI cricket’s popularity boons at big events such as the World Cup, tennis is thrust into the spotlight during the Grand Slams with the focus primarily on the singles format and the superstars who double up as some of the most celebrated athletes in the world.

 Crafty, cunning and devastating: French Open provides another chance to savour Martina Hingis

Martina Hingis in 1996. Getty Images

As tennis’ peak season is set to start at the French Open, with Wimbledon closely following, it’s a timely chance to monitor Martina Hingis’ latest renaissance on the grand stage.

Hingis, ranked two in the world in women’s doubles, has formed a devastating partnership with Sania Mirza – who recently became the number one ranked women’s doubles player and the first Indian to achieve that lofty status.

Since pairing earlier this year, Mirza-Hingis have compiled an outstanding 18-3 record winning in Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston. Last week, they reached the final of the Rome Masters clay court event in preparation of the French Open.

The pair will be a strong contender at Roland Garros, which presents an ideal opportunity for Mirza to win her first women’s doubles Grand Slam. For Hingis, it is another opportunity to add to her burgeoning trophy cabinet – she has won 16 career Grand Slams, including nine in women’s doubles.

For tennis fans, even those who dismiss the doubles format, it is an opportune chance to marvel at Hingis, who is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant strategists ever to have played the game. At a modest 5'7" (170cm) and lithe, Hingis represents a throwback to a bygone era when smaller statured players were still capable of dominating tennis.

Due to the utter domination of the Williams sisters, women’s tennis this millennium has increasingly gravitated towards the big-hitting power game. The prototype player now is tall, strong and can relentlessly slug from the baseline. Hingis is the antithesis of those ideal characteristics. She’s a quaint figure trading on high intelligence and versatility as the backbone to her game.

Hingis’ crafty arsenal includes a gorgeous deft drop shot, savvy volleying, cunning slices and pinpoint placement. Not lightning quick around the court, Hingis dictates through her strategic brilliance.

Reminiscent of a snooker champion, Hingis has the foresight of knowing where the ball is travelling a few shots in advance. Her tremendous variety coupled with innate smarts has always made Hingis compelling and such a treat to watch.

In a sport renowned for producing prodigies, Hingis – who was named after 18-time singles champion Martina Navratilova - was perhaps the ultimate wunderkind. She won five Grand Slam singles titles before turning 19 and spent 209 weeks as world number one.

Her absolute peak was in 1997 when the then 16-year-old Hingis went 27-1 in majors with her only loss coming to Iva Majoli in the French Open final. It was one of the most remarkable calendar years in tennis history and suggested Hingis would have a prolonged reign as the best women’s tennis player.

But big hitters like Lindsay Davenport started challenging Hingis’ supremacy before the Williams sisters emerged as irresistible forces. While it was refreshing watching Hingis at her pomp, inevitably her domination at the top was fleeting.

After persistent ankle injuries, Hingis retired in early 2003 at the tender age of 22. She hadn’t won a singles Grand Slam title for four years, which left some cynics believing Hingis was consigned to the realisation she couldn’t compete with the powerful elite anymore.

Sania and Hingis after winning the Miami Open. Getty Images

Sania and Hingis after winning the Miami Open. Getty Images

Despite boasting the congenial moniker the "Swiss Miss", due to being brought up in Switzerland, Hingis had a dubious perception because of her occasional temperamental and petulant behaviour, which most infamously reared during her 1999 French Open final meltdown to Steffi Graf when she served underhand much to the derision of the crowd. It was easy to forget Hingis was still only a teenager, and that her immaturity was probably fuelled by the intense scrutiny.

Once poised to dominate throughout the 2000s, Hingis’ retirement abruptly halted one of tennis’ most promising careers. But Hingis re-emerged to the WTA circuit in 2006, where she became a crowd favourite during her Grand Slam comeback at the Australian Open. It appeared many had forgiven her earlier indiscretions, and most notably, had longed for diversity in a women’s game that had become stilted stylistically.

Although she was a regular top 10 player, Hingis was unable to legitimately contend at Grand Slams, as it appeared the speed and power of the women's game had passed her by. Her career seemingly ingloriously ended when she tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon in 2007.

She received a two-year ban from the International Tennis Federation, although Hingis has always maintained her innocence despite not contesting the charges.

It appeared Hingis’ professional career was over and her destiny lay at the lucrative exhibition circuit for former champions.

Michael Jordan-esque, Hingis surprisingly made a second comeback in 2013, albeit solely in doubles.

For all her success in singles, Hingis' prowess was best utilised in doubles. She famously spearheaded a highly successful partnership with the maligned Anna Kournikova, much to the delight of gawking admirers. Hingis can better leverage her genius in doubles, and her weakness in strength can be covered by a partner powerful on the baseline.

Hingis paired with the indefatigable Leander Paes to win this year’s Australian Open mixed doubles; similar chemistry was hoped with Mirza. So far, the Hingis-Mirza combination has been an irresistible pairing. They complement each other perfectly; Hingis is adept with the backhand juxtaposing nicely with Mirza’s lethal forehand. With her forceful backcourt abilities, Mirza sets up points allowing Hingis – highly skilled at the net – to finish off.

Hingis has hinted at playing until next year’s Rio Olympics but, as she approaches 35, she may be one injury away from permanent retirement. Undoubtedly, it is an opportunity to saviour Hingis.

Watching Hingis tap into her magical bag of tricks, it’s hard not to think what her legacy could have been without the injuries or if she had played a generation earlier. During her latest reincarnation, Hingis appears to be far happier and content on the court; perhaps her comeback is more about catharsis than silverware.

It’s pleasing one of tennis’ most intriguing players and personalities has the chance to re-write the final chapter of her beguiling career, after two misfires previously.

Updated Date: May 21, 2015 15:37:48 IST