Star of parallel world

Star of parallel world

Star of parallel world

Heinz Günthardt, Martina Hingis' Swiss Fed Cup captain, said he believed she was capable of playing on tour until she was 50 years old.

She made it to 37, and though two previous Hingis retirements turned out to be sabbaticals, this one seems like the real deal. "You want to stop on top and not when you're already going backward," she said in Singapore before playing her final match, a loss in the semifinals of the doubles tournament at the WTA Finals.

At the time of her first two retirements, Hingis was nowhere near any sort of tennis pinnacle. In 2003, when she stopped at 22, she was in chronic pain and had not won a Grand Slam singles title in more than four years.

After coming back to the tour in 2006 and rising to No 6 in singles, her momentum faltered and she ended up retiring again in November 2007, at 27, after deciding not to contest a positive test for trace amounts of cocaine. She was later suspended for two years.

This time, there is no apparent dark side behind her decision. She shares the No 1 ranking in women's doubles with Chan Yung-Jan, her last doubles partner on tour, so she is indeed leaving on top even if they could not win their final tournament together in Singapore.

But there is still a caveat. Since her unexpected return in the second half of 2013, she has essentially been a big fish in a small pond: excelling only at doubles while a select few of her former rivals have continued to thrive on the grander singles stages.

Hingis, already in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, remained a star but was no longer a superstar - not unlike Lleyton Hewitt, the feisty Australian who was a precocious No 1 at age 20 and a two-time major singles champion before being eclipsed by the relentless brilliance of the Big Four (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal).

Doubles is a parallel universe at WTA events and Grand Slam tournaments. Finals are often played in front of sparse crowds and rarely get mainstream television coverage. Hingis, with her court craft and phenomenal reflexes, was able to rule over this much smaller kingdom, winning 20 Grand Slam doubles titles in all.

But it was still inescapable that, not long after Hingis gave her latest retirement speech, Venus Williams, also 37, went out and pushed Caroline Wozniacki, 27, before losing in the singles final to cap a resurgent season that just might rank as the most remarkable of Williams' long career.

In singles, Hingis peaked early. She began playing at 2 and was one of the true wunderkinds in a sport whose history is rich in child prodigies. At 12, Hingis won the French Open girls tournament, which was open to players as old as 18.

"She's like a young Bobby Fischer playing chess," said Roy Sjögren, Switzerland's national women's coach, before Hingis turned professional at age 14.

She proceeded to outthink and outmanoeuvre her elders on a regular basis with her versatility and cryptic grin: one that could express delight or disdain (and sometimes disdainful delight).

At  15, she became the youngest Grand Slam champion by teaming with Helena Sukova to win the Wimbledon women's doubles title. At 16, she won the Australian Open to become the youngest person to win a major singles title in the 20th century and the youngest No 1.

She had game and she also had attitude. Before playing Lindsay Davenport in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1997, Hingis and Davenport met for the coin toss to determine who would serve first. Hingis said to Davenport: "OK, do you want to get broken first or do you want to let me hold?"

She and Davenport ended up laughing at the net, but there were other cheeky comments from the sharp-tongued Hingis that seemed less light-hearted, like her assessment of young French player Amélie Mauresmo, who had come out as a lesbian, as "half a man" at the 1999 Australian Open.

That was the same year Hingis turned petulant during a dramatic French Open final loss to Steffi Graf, angering the volatile Paris crowd and Graf by violating tennis protocol and crossing the net to examine a ball mark in Graf's half of the court.

Hingis ended up losing her composure and the match, in three sets, leaving the court in tears and only returning for the awards ceremony at the insistence of her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, who steadied her as they re-emerged together from the tunnel.

Hingis paradoxically never won the French Open in singles despite clay being one of her best surfaces. She did win the other three Grand Slam singles titles; all five titles came in a two-year stretch. She saved her best tennis for the Australian Open, where she won in 1997, 1998 and 1999, and then reached finals in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Named for Martina Navratilova, Hingis was clearly born to be a champion. Molitor, once a prominent player in Czechoslovakia, made sure that her daughter understood all the angles and that she did sports and activities other than tennis, including horseback riding, in an attempt to avoid burnout and injury.

But there was no planning for the Williams sisters, a tennis success story even more improbable than Hingis'. Serena and Venus were not named for any prior tennis greats, but their father and coach, Richard Williams, was every bit as committed to his bold project even if he lacked Molitor's playing experience and reticence to commandeer the spotlight. It took the sisters time to end the Hingis era, with ample help from two other Americans, Jennifer Capriati and Davenport.

When Hingis stopped playing singles, she still held an 11-10 edge over Venus Williams and trailed Serena Williams only 6-7. But it was the strength of their games and their personalities that ultimately convinced Hingis that she should be a doubles specialist. "The willpower of Serena, nobody can beat that," Hingis once told me. "There has not been another player who has the same hunger."

Hingis surely possessed plenty of her own to keep returning to the game she played so artfully, to be satisfied in the small pond after all that time navigating larger bodies of water.


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