Martina Hingis: From child prodigy to tennis legend, the incredible journey of Swiss Miss

‘Hands of Hingis,’ read a poster in the stands at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Saturday. In just three words, the fan watching the semi-final of the WTA Tour Finals–Martina Hingis’ last ever professional match–had summed up what made the Swiss Miss one of the game’s greats.

Tennis today has evolved into an excruciating demonstration of power. Shots across the net are meant to be hammered from deep inside one’s own baseline. Yet still in this world, Hingis flourished. Her art all delicate and delightful.

Martina Hingis: From child prodigy to tennis legend, the incredible journey of Swiss Miss

File picture of Martina Hingis. AP

The Swiss never had the arms or legs for a power game. Nor does she hold a fondness for staying rooted to the baseline–she’s skilled at taking shots on the volley. Hingis, instead, is a player blessed with intelligence and knows how to use every inch, every angle on the court. It is this shining light, of her tennis IQ and fine execution, that will be missed and had an array of stars to come out with tributes as the 37-year-old–for the third time in her career–has decided to retire from the game.

Roger Federer leads the pack. “I’m not sad to see her retire, she’s been in the game for long enough, and she seems at peace with her decision – that’s wonderful. I’ve always been a fan of her and I always will be,” he says.

Federer had paired up with Hingis to win the 2001 Hopman Cup for Switzerland. At that time, Federer–who is 10 months younger than Hingis–was still two years away from winning the first of his 19 Grand Slam titles. But Hingis had already won all of her five singles titles. “Martina was partially the one who showed me how it was all done,” he adds.

In a career that spans a whopping 23 years–Hingis who turned pro at just 14–amassed 25 Grand Slam titles (five in singles, 13 in doubles and seven in mixed doubles) and has held the No 1 rank for 209 weeks. Overall she’s won 43 singles titles and 64 in doubles.

Born to parents who were tennis players themselves, Hingis was named after legendary Martina Navratilova. Her mother Melanie Molitor began training her when she was only two. By four she was already competing in tournaments. By the time she turned 15, she had already won her first Grand Slam doubles title.

At Wimbledon 1996, the teenager paired with veteran Helena Sukova for her maiden slam, thus taking the first step into assuring the ‘prodigy’ status that had long been thrust upon her.

But it wasn’t until a year later that she would truly take the tennis world by storm.

In the season of 1997, she’d reach the final of all four singles Grand Slams, but lose out in only the French Open. At the US Open though, when she was 16, she’d come up against a certain 17-year-old Venus Williams to give a glimpse of what the sport was transforming to.

Though Hingis won that final, the Williams Sisters–Venus and Serena–brought to the game an unforeseen style. The ball was being struck early, and there was a great deal of oomph to every shot. The game was changing, and Hingis was struggling to keep up. Coupled by ankle surgeries, in 2003, the five time singles champion called for retirement–aged just 23.

Though the game was thrust upon her as a child, she discovered she couldn’t stay away from it too long. By 2006 she was back and immediately captured the Australian Open mixed doubles title with Mahesh Bhupathi. She began working her way up and peaked by ranking sixth in the world. In November 2007 though, she was banned for two years by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) after testing positive for a metabolite of cocaine at the Wimbledon Championships earlier in the year.

Hingis instead decided to retire for the second time, and it was another six years before she decided to get back to the circuit–as a 33-year-old. “In the past, I always had things in back of my head, where I might be able to return. When you see other players who are my age and they are still playing and performing at that level, I was hoping I could do the same,” she says.

In 2013, the year she was inducted into tennis’ Hall of Fame, she entered the third act of her career. By now well into her 30s, Hingis kept her ambitions realistic and turned her focus to the doubles game, which even now rewards quick hands and thinking. She paired up with Daniela Handuchova, before reaching the 2014 US Open final with Flavia Pennetta. But by 2015, she forged a strong combination with India’s Sania Mirza.

The pair captured Wimbledon and the US Open of 2015, and followed it up with the 2016 Australian Open title. The pair won 14 titles in their 18-month partnership, even going on a 41-match winning streak. In the mixed doubles, she paired up with Leander Paes to win the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open of 2015, and then the 2016 French Open.

“I always considered myself as a pretty decent doubles player, even in my first career. I had been winning slams, and I was hoping that I could do it,” she adds.

In what was now her last season, she’s won three more Grand Slams–mixed doubles at Wimbledon and the US Open with Jamie Murray, along with a women’s doubles title with Chan Yung-Jan. Her last match turned out to be a semi-final defeat to Timea Babos and Andrea Hlavackova. “People probably think, ‘after a year like this, after a season like this…’ But I think it’s also perfect timing. You know you want to stop when you’re on top and not when you’re going backwards,” she said in a press conference. “I couldn’t have asked for a better finish.”

Did we see the last of Hingis at the Singapore WTA Finals this year? The Swiss is quick to remind: “As history shows, I haven’t been able to stay away from tennis for long in the past. So this isn’t a goodbye,” she had said in a statement when she announced her retirement on Thursday.

For now though, the game will say farewell to the champion with rare finesse. One who played her own game, a touch game, in an era of hard-hitters, and still belonged. A child prodigy who left as a legend of the game.

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Updated Date: Oct 28, 2017 17:33:12 IST

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