Lost Artist

Friday, July 12, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Martina Hingis always had a talent for tennis, as well as a nose for trouble. There’s no getting around the fact that her Hall of Fame induction this weekend in Newport, R.I., comes at an awkward time. Two days ago, in comments to a Swiss newspaper, her ex-husband portrayed her as a serial adulteress. This isn’t the first time that the former No. 1 has been dogged by controversy. As a player, Hingis was cocky and outspoken, she suffered the meltdown to end all meltdowns in the 1999 French Open final against Steffi Graf, and her career came to an end in 2007 after she tested positive for cocaine (Hingis denied taking the drug).

What matters this weekend, though, is what Hingis did on a tennis court, rather than away from it, during her 12-year, stop-and-start career. There the evidence is all in her favor. Looking back at her results, I had forgotten how irrefutable that evidence was, in both singles and doubles. She won 43 singles titles, including five Grand Slams, and 37 doubles titles, including nine majors. Hingis was No. 1 for 209 weeks in singles, and 35 weeks in doubles; she’s one of only five women to hold the top ranking in both at the same time. And when she was at her best, few players have been as dominant over short periods: In 1997, Hingis came one match away from winning the calendar-year Grand Slam in singles; in 1998, she completed it in doubles. She was also something we don’t see much of today: A prodigy. In 1996, at 15 years and 9 months, she became the youngest Grand Slam champion ever when she won the Wimbledon doubles with Helena Sukova. 

But Hingis didn’t just win, she won with smarts and style. This daughter of two accomplished Slovakian players had the sport in her DNA. She won in singles, doubles, and mixed, and she won with a little bit of everything—touch, consistency, clever point construction, and that indefinable intelligence which the aficionados call “court sense.” Few players used as much of the playing surface as she did. The one thing Hingis lacked was power, and that proved to be a fatal flaw. The woman who had dominated the WTA in 1997 announced her first retirement in 2003, at age 22. She suffered injuries and had surgery on both ankles, but by then the game had also passed her by. At 5'7" and without a muscular frame, Hingis had trouble keeping up with the more fast-paced and physical brand of tennis that Venus and Serena Williams, as well as Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport, brought to the WTA. Hingis began her career as a record-breaking prodigy, and ended it as the last of the teen-champion cautionary tales, an early victim of burnout and physical breakdown. Hingis' comeback in 2006 would have been a success on most player's terms—she finished the year No. 7—but she never threatened at the majors.

From an historical standpoint, Hingis was in the right place at the right time. She won her Slams in a transitional period: During her late-90s heyday, Steffi Graf, a 22-time Slam winner, was in decline, while Serena Williams, a 16-time Slam winner, was still finding her game. But for those who saw her play, the historical record won’t tell the whole story. From her deceptive drop shot to her casually accurate two-handed backhand volley, Hingis did everything with an easy, natural precision. You might say her game is a lost art, but then it was never all that common n the first place. Every so often, when a young woman makes a few clever plays and shows a hint of touch, we wonder if she could be the Next Hingis. Of today’s Top 10, perhaps only Agnieszka Radwanska would qualify as her inheritor. Players in their vein are few and far between, and very few men or women spend 209 weeks at No. 1 using a finesse game. Hingis was good enough to pull it off, to foil her bigger-hitting opponents for a few years. That, rather than her early retirement or her off-court flaws, is her real legacy.

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