Martina Hingis: Enduring Excellence
Martina Hingis’ announcement that she was retiring naturally compelled the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) to ponder this great champion’s legacy. ITHF historian-at-large Joel Drucker now offers his assessment of Hingis’ genius.
It was the summer of 1993. Hall of Famer Pancho Segura had recently been to Roland Garros. “I watched this 12-year-old girl win the juniors,” said the man who’d coached that quintessential assassin, Jimmy Connors. “This Swiss kid will cut your head off – and she’ll like it."
If there are some people who appear to work even when at play, the girl from Switzerland was the opposite; her ever-alert eyes and broad smile the telltale signals of her appetite, akin to the cat who savors toying with a mouse.
The girl was Martina Hingis. Nearly 20 years later, at a café in the Wimbledon Village, Hingis would wax on how she’d come of age as a tennis player. “I was smaller,” she said, “and so I had to think my way through all my matches.” There had been plenty of them too, the young Martina frequently and persistently taking on players of all ages, stages and styles.
Hingis’ path had been forged from the minute she was born in Czechoslovakia on September 30, 1980. Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, a fine player in her own right, had named her after the greatest of all Czech players, Martina Navratilova. So smoothly did Hingis succeed that it’s easy to underestimate the pressures of such expectation.
By the fall of 1994, Hingis had turned pro. Her technique was first-rate. This was a woman who’d devoted significant time to footwork, balance, posture; skills likely aided by her pursuit of such hobbies as horseback riding and roller blading. But even more dazzling was Hingis’ tactical mind. As International Tennis Hall of Fame CEO Todd Martin said, “I had never seen someone hit the right shot at the right time so consistently. She seemingly could hit every spot on the court. It was a pleasure to watch her navigate her way through a match against much more powerful women.”
Nimble, versatile, opportunistic – these were the cornerstones of the Hingis playing style. By 1997, she was number one in the world, that year winning singles titles at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open. From ’97-’02, Hingis reached 12 Grand Slam singles finals, winning five. In 1998, she won all four doubles majors.
And then came a series of remarkable exits and reentrances. Hip and ankle injuries led to Hingis’ first retirement in February 2003. Two years later, she returned to the WTA, in 2005 making some forays into competition, most notably in World Team Tennis, where Hingis helped lead her team, the New York Sportimes, to the WTT title. After all, as much as she enjoyed the process of play, Hingis was a ravenous competitor, eager to attain great outcomes.
At the ’06 Australian Open, playing her first major in more than three years, Hingis reached the quarterfinals and also won the mixed doubles title. Over the course of that year, Hingis would win two singles titles and earn victories over such powerful elite players as Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport. To the delight of Hingis and crowds around the world, the skills she’d honed for decades were once again front and center – superb footwork, fantastic racquet control, exquisite shot selection. She would finish that ’06 campaign ranked seventh in the world.
Hingis continued to compete in 2007, beating future world number one Ana Ivanovic in the finals of Tokyo. By the end of that year, still a top 20 player, she once again declared the end of her career.
While the first comeback was impressive, what happened next was amazing. In July 2013, Hingis was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The stage seemed set for typical life of a past champion -- legends events, coaching, various appearances.
But by the end of that same month, Hingis had regained her appetite for competition and announced her return to the tour. This time, though, it would be strictly as a doubles player. “I feel good in doubles,” Hingis said then. “I always said I was a much better doubles player than singles player, because the hands I always had, obviously.”
She proved that with a vengeance. In 2014, Hingis won three WTA doubles titles. And then, in 2015, the star went supernova. Hingis raised the champion’s trophy at ten tournaments. In March, at Indian Wells, she joined forces with Sania Mirza. Mirza’s forehand firepower and Hingis’ deft course sense meshed perfectly. Mirza-Hingis’ nine titles that year included victories at Wimbledon and the US Open. At the age of 35, Martina Hingis was once again ranked number one in the world.
THE GLOBAL AMBASSADOR
Also in 2015, at Wimbledon, she became the ITHF’s first global ambassador. Said Hingis, “The International Tennis Hall of Fame is a special place. When you walk through the museum there, it’s awe-inspiring to see all the great champions and memorable moments that our sport has delivered. I was honored, humbled, and inspired during the time I spent there for my induction…I’m thrilled to be working with the Hall of Fame to bring the organization’s mission and message out to fans around the world in a new way.” It was a fitting post for someone who took sheer pleasure simply being on a tennis court, be it WTA, WTT, Fed Cup, the Olympics.
THE DOUBLES DOMINATION
Over the next two years, Hingis continued to demonstrate her prowess and passion. In 2017, she formed a partnership with Chan Yung-Jan. The two were an instant success, taking nine WTA titles that year, including the US Open.
But the third phase of Hingis’ career was also marked by exceptional triumphs in mixed doubles, Hingis from 2015 to ’17 winning six Grand Slam titles. In some ways, those victories marked a full cycle return to Hingis’ youth, to the many days in Switzerland when she’d been the smallest player on the court, drawing on every ounce of her skills – and all the while relishing the chance to repeatedly prove that success in tennis tilted far more on brains than brawn.
THE FINAL SET
Hingis announced her retirement in October 2017, several weeks after she’d won both the doubles and mixed at the US Open. It had been a remarkable career. Across three decades, from ages 15 to 36, Hingis had won 25 Grand Slam titles – winning every title except for the singles at Roland Garros (where she was twice a finalist). Hingis had been a prodigy, retired, returned, repeated, endured. Per Segura’s prophecy, Martina Hingis had cut off her share of heads – and liked it.