Renaissance Woman

by: Steve Tignor February 08, 2016

Hingis will forever be a transitional figure in women’s tennis. (AP)

“She did all the great volleys and all the doubles stuff,” 18-year-old Belinda Bencic said after helping Switzerland clinch its first-round Fed Cup tie against Germany on Sunday

The “she” in that sentence was Martina Hingis, Bencic’s teammate, idol, and sometime-coach. Fourteen years after her first retirement from tennis, Hingis is still teaching the kids what this “doubles stuff” is all about. 

Before the tie’s fifth and deciding match, momentum had swung hard in Germany’s favor. Annika Beck had knotted the score at 2-2 by beating the higher-ranked Timea Bacsinszky, and the crowd in Leipzig was on its feet and (a little awkwardly) dancing in the aisles. Who could Switzerland call on to put out the fire? The team’s secret weapon, of course: A 35-year-old whose best year—1997, when she won three Grand Slam singles titles—happened to be the same one in which her partner, Bencic, was born. 

“I was cheering them on for the first four matches,” Hingis said of her younger teammates, “and then I had to go out there.”

Hingis and Bencic went out there, and a few minutes later the German fans were back in their seats; it was pretty clear that there wouldn’t be any more dancing on this day. The Swiss team cruised past Andrea Petkovic and Anna-Lena Groenefeld, 6-3, 6-2. As Bencic said, it was Hingis who led the way with her returns, net coverage, consistency, creativity, and incomparable court sense. All of the things, in other words, that have already put Hingis in the sport’s Hall of Fame.

“I was just happy I could play with her,” Bencic said. “I’m not a doubles specialist.”

Once upon a time, Hingis wasn’t a doubles specialist, either. Three tennis lifetimes ago, all the way back in the 20th century, Hingis spent 203 weeks at the top of the WTA’s singles rankings, won five major singles titles, and fell one match short of completing a calendar-year Grand Slam. Like Novak Djokovic last year, her only loss at a major in 1997 came in the French Open final, to Iva Majoli. The following year, she did complete a calendar-year Grand Slam, in doubles.

But that was only the start for Hingis. While she looked sure to be the next great women’s player, she ended up instead having a career that was as notable for its plunging lows as it was for its stratospheric highs. As a 16-year-old, she became the youngest player to win a major, at the 1997 Australian Open. Two years later, she became perhaps the youngest player to be booed off center court at the French Open, after throwing a fit in her final-round loss to Steffi Graf. And as a 22-year-old, after ceding the spotlight to Serena and Venus Williams, Hingis became one of the youngest champions to retire. 

In 2006, she came back and quickly returned to the Top 10. By the end of 2007, though, she had retired again, after being suspended for two years after testing positive for a metabolite of cocaine. In 2013, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.

Now Hingis is back again, and working on another Slam. She and her partner, Sania Mirza, have won the last three women’s doubles majors, and are currently on a 36-match win streak. Hingis first took over the top spot in the WTA’s doubles rankings in 1998; now she’s done it again in 2016. Has there ever been a longer hiatus between turns at No. 1? 

"Who would’ve thought I would have another opportunity to become No. 1 again?" Hingis said in January. "Of course I had my hopes and dreams. Now it’s a reality.”

Hingis may claim that she only had “hopes and dreams” of a third career renaissance, but she doesn’t sound, or act, too surprised about it to me. At 35, she still plays and speaks with the swagger of someone who has always felt she belonged at the top.

“Obviously the first three months, the first three tournaments, we were already, like, amazing,” Hingis says of the early stages of her partnership with Mirza, which began last year.

“It’s something that’s a priority,” Hingis says. “When I was playing singles, singles was [the] priority. I became No. 1 there. Also simultaneously I was No. 1 in both. Now I put 100 percent or 120 percent into this, and I think that’s what makes us this great doubles [team].”

Of course, there’s more to the team's success than that. While Hingis praises Mirza mainly for “setting me up,” it’s the mix of the Indian woman’s power with the Swiss woman’s finesse that makes them such a formidable and complementary duo. Mirza pounds her forehand as hard as many of the WTA’s singles stars, while Hingis, even at 35, places the ball and covers the net like few players today. The fact that each is devoted solely to doubles gives them an advantage, in terms of focus and practice time, over those who also play singles.

“Even playing crosscourt forehands when we practice, we just constantly make each other better,” says Hingis, who says she has improved her serve in her time with Mirza.

Whether she’s playing with Mirza or Bencic, though, it’s Hingis who puts on a clinic in classic doubles tactics and technique. She’s the one who drapes herself over the net, follows the ball instinctively, and cuts it off whenever possible. She’s the one who can create surprising angles on her return and take over the net from a younger server who won’t leave the baseline. She’s the one who doesn’t make the wild, crucial error at the wrong time. And she’s one of the few players who can hit crisp volley winners with two hands on the racquet.

It’s also true that Hingis is the one with the 70-m.p.h. second serve; as she says at virtually every press conference, she has no plans to go back to singles, and there’s a good reason for that. Hingis will forever be a transitional figure in women’s tennis: The last finesse champion before the power-game onslaught; the last champion of the 20th century.

Sixteen years into the 21st century, Hingis is like a former U.S. president who has become a senator later in life. She’s no longer the very best, but she’s still putting her unique skills to good use. She’s the one who still makes all of that “doubles stuff” worth watching.