by Pete Bodo
For someone who retired from tennis and seemed to transition seamlessly into what most people would call a full—and fulfilling—"normal" life, one that includes marriage and incorporates an authentic, long-lasting passion for equestrian arts, Martina Hingis has sure spent a lot of time nibbling around the edges of the game that turned its back on her more than once.
Hingis has created headlines and fuelled rumors, and let's not even get into the fact that she retired once at the tender age of 22 (although she had solid, injury-related reasons for taking a long break) and only aborted a subsequent comeback that took her as high as No. 6 in the world because she tested positive for cocaine while at Wimbledon.
Rumors of a second comeback by Hingis following her latest official retirement in 2007 sprouted like mushrooms for some time; her enthusiasm for World Team Tennis suggested that she was seriously considering it. Then back in July, Hingis herself reported that she had been approached by Roger Federer's representatives about perhaps playing mixed doubles with the greatest Grand Slam champion of them all at the upcoming London Olympic games. She said at the time: "I'm not sure, because you have to really commit. I feel great right now, but it's still a long way to go."
Well, that opportunity came and went, with Hingis doing nothing to meet the requirements for becoming part of the Swiss team. It's a shame, because Federer-Hingis would be a delightful team to watch—especially in an Olympic context, where all events, even the mixed doubles, seem to matter. And given that Federer is a defending doubles gold medalist, and almost sure to be among the top eight seeds in singles, you couldn't entirely discount the possibility that Federer might top off his career with a three-gold medal performance in London (the Olympic event will be played at Wimbledon, on grass, where Federer has enjoyed some success). Stranger things have happened.
Now the French sports daily L'Equipe tells us that Hingis is joining the Patrick Mourataglou Academy in Paris, and will be an advisor who helps oversee the development of promising youngsters Daria Gavrilova, Yulia Putintseva, Naomi Broadly and Sachia Vickery.
In fact, Hingis has been on the job for a month already. Mourataglou told L'Equipe, "Now that she has accepted the end of her career, Martina is ready to move on and coaching is a natural. The girls are delighted and are well aware of the opportunity they have. It's been one month that she has been with us and everything is going very well ... We all know about her tactical understanding of the game, her insight on the court."
This is news to make you smile on a number of levels, not least of which is that it constitutes another tacit declaration of Hingis's love for the game—something not to be taken for granted in a day and age when most top women players seem to want to be anything but tennis players. Hingis, a five-time Grand Slam singles champion (and a woman who won a calendar year Grand Slam in doubles, albeit with two different partners—Mirjana Lucic at the Australian Open, and Jana Novotna at the other three), will be going to Australia on a kind of busman's holiday. She'll be coaching the aforementioned Mourataglou players as well as competing in a "Legends" event.
Women's tennis needs more women like Hingis. Who knows, she may even end up being the first singles Grand Slam champion in recent memory to serve as the official "coach" to a Grand Slam champion. One of the enduring mysteries of women's tennis is just why there are so few former WTA players coaching the present generation.
Obviously, tennis is in Hingis's blood, and it's a real pity that that other banned substance was found there as well back during her successful comeback in 2007. Hingis swore she was innocent, but chose to retire once again rather than appeal the decision—or sit out the long suspension to which she was subject. That controversy once again raised the question of whether or not the tours ought to test for recreational drugs, like cocaine, which don't really have any performance-enhancing benefits (like chemically created energy) that aren't outweighed by liabilities (like addiction, or the extremely short period of time that the false energy lasts).
Hingis has weathered all the ups and downs of her asymmetrical career in admirable fashion, given the terrible struggles faced by some other prodigies, including her pal and one time rival Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Jelena Dokic, et al. And make no mistake, she was a prodigy of the absolute highest order.
Hingis's career can be said to have started in earnest when she won her first junior Grand Slam title, in Paris, at the record-breaking age of. . . 12. Over the ensuing years, she accumulated a passel of "youngest this" and "youngest that" honors. But she also absorbed some terrific blows, especially once she matured. She lost the 1997 French Open singles final to Eva Majoli in one of the most stunning upsets in tennis history. To make matters worse, that would be the only Grand Slam singles match Hingis lost that year, as she fell one match short of becoming just the third woman (after Margaret Court and Steffi Graf) to complete a proper, calendar-year Grand Slam.
And then there was the career-long struggle with injuries, which began in 2001 when Hingis had the first of her surgeries, on her right ankle. She was barely 21 at the time, and never the same player again—although she did make her sixth consecutive Australian Open final (which she lost to Jennifer Capriati after squandering four match points) after the operation. We could go on, but the point is clear: For all kinds of reasons, Hingis might have soured on tennis. But her love for the game is obvious. Turns out she's played WTT (among other things) all these years because. . . she enjoys it!
For a former prodigy, Hingis is one of the most well-adjusted people you can every hope to meet. We'll be lucky if this present generation of players produces one or two players who follow a similar path, guarding and sustaining their love of the game. Perhaps it will be one of the girls presently under Hingis's care.