It may not take a rocket scientist to recognize good tennis, but it certainly took some genius to play the way Martina Hingis did in her heyday. After a four-year absence, the Swiss Miss has returned to the court with a bigger serve and smaller ego. In the process, she has also become the talk of the women’s tour. Those who predicted a failed comeback have marveled at Martina’s workmanlike approach. Those who failed to appreciate her the first time around now have that rarest of opportunities in tennis—a second chance. This is her story…

GROWING UP

Martina Hingis was born on September 30, 1980, in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, which his now part of Slovakia. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) Her parents, Melanie Molitor and Karol Hingis, had both been top junior tennis players, and were beginning their coaching careers in the sport. Martina was named after Martina Navratilova, but her tennis idol as a child was Monica Seles.

Martina began playing tennis at age three and took to the sport right away. She picked up the mechanics of groundstrokes and serves, and developed remarkable anticipation at an early age. Melanie and Karol started entering their daughter in tournaments after her fifth birthday, and she usually did well against the older, bigger children she played. Martina also loved to ski. This did wonders for her balance, and for her confidence.

In 1988, Martina’s parents were divorced. She lived exclusively with her mother after that, and as the walls of Communism began to erode, Melanie was able to move them permanently to Switzerland. There she molded her daughter into a terrific all-around player.


 

 

Martina was athletic and smart. She could hit power strokes, but she also demonstrated great touch on a variety of shots. Her mother coached her in the mind games of tennis, too. When an opponent was overwhelming Martina, she would empty her ever-growing bag of tricks until she found a way to break the player’s rhythm. If she happened to find a weakness, she would exploit it mercilessly. Indeed, there were matches where Martina looked completely outclassed for a set, only to dissect her opponent and win the final two sets with relative ease.

To Melanie’s credit, she made her daughter into a top junior player without the complete tennis immersion that often results in pre-teen burnout. On the contrary, Martina rarely practiced for more than 90 minutes a day, and her economical tournament victories were actually fun. As she would say many times as she rose to #1, tennis was like being on holiday all year ‘round.

By the spring of 1993, 12-year-old Martina was tearing through the draw at the French Open junior tournament. She became that tourney's youngest champion. At the Wimbledon juniors, Martina played on grass for the first time. She reached the semifinals of both the singles and doubles before bowing out. That fall, after turning 13, she decided to turn pro. In her first tournament as a professional, she entered a futures event near her home, in Langenthal, Switzerland, and won.

In 1994, Martina began to face stiffer competition, but held her own. Her first WTA tournament was in Zurich. She beat Patty Fendick 6-4, 6-3, before dropping a match to Mary Pierce in the next round. A couple of weeks later she upset Helena Sukova, and a couple of weeks after that upended Sabine Hack. Martina finished the season ranked 87th in the world, and reached the quarterfinals of two tour events. She also won the junior singles and doubles at Roland Garros again, and was junior champion of Wimbledon. Martina reached the finals of the U.S. Open juniors as well.

ON THE RISE

Martina climbed into the Top 20 just eight months after playing her first WTA event. In 1995, she played all four Grand Slams, reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open, where she lost to Magdalena Maleeva. Her finest moment came in the first round of the French Open, when she saved three match points to defeat Judith Wiesner. Two rounds later, she nearly stole a three-set battle with Lindsay Davenport. At Hamburg, Martina reached her first WTA Tour final, beating Top 10 players Jana Novotna and Anke Huber along the way. At the same event, she teamed with Gigi Fernandez to win the doubles competition. Martina ended the year ranked 16th in the world, and walked off with the WTA’s Most Impressive Newcomer award.


Martina Hingis, 1996 Girls & Sports
 

Martina started the 1996 season by becoming the youngest player in the Open era to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. In Rome, she beat Steffi Graf in the quarters to score her first win over a #1 ranked player. At Wimbledon, Martina advanced only to the fourth round, but she and Helena Sukova won the doubles, making the youngster—at age 15—the youngest player ever to win a Wimbledon title. She broke the record set in 1887 by Lottie Dodd. At the U.S. Open, Martina went all the way to the semis before Graf avenged her spring defeat.

Martina captured her first WTA tour victory at Filderstadt in October of 1996. She earned the title with victories over Arantxa Sanchez, Huber and Davenport. She received a Porsche in addition to the prize money. She got another Porsche a year later when she defended her crown—and still was not old enough to drive.

One week after her 16th birthday, Martina cracked the Top 10. That fall she also passed the $1 million mark in career prize money. No one, male or female, had ever reached that plateau as fast. Martina capped off a great year by reaching the finals of the season-ending Chase Championships, but lost to Graf again in a thrilling five-setter. The teen finished the year ranked #4.

Martina’s game was now rounding into championship form. She did not have any single overwhelming weapon, so it was difficult to prepare for matches against her. Yet she did everything well, and could pick apart an opponent better than anyone else on the tour—an amazing achievement considering she was still a teenager. She adjusted her style to suit the environment, playing surface and opponent. When an opponent got into a groove against Martina, she was confident enough to let her get comfortable, and then subtly turn the tables. Her enemy’s panic to react would ultimately prove her undoing. Witnessing Martina beat stronger, faster, more experienced players was like watching a microsurgeon at work.

The doctor made her first house call in January of 1997 at the Australian Open. She won the singles (against Pierce) and the doubles (with Zvreva), eclipsing another Lottie Dodd mark by becoming the youngest Grand Slam singles titleist in history. Martina won her first 37 matches of the season, and took the prestigious Lipton singles in Florida that March. The victory gave her $1 million in prize money for the year. No one had ever reached that number earlier in a season. Martina also became the WTA’s top-ranked player after that win—the youngest since the rankings began in 1975.


Steffi Graf, 1986 Fax Pax
 

In April of 1997, Martina was pursuing her second love—horseback riding—when she fell and injured her knee. During a brief arthroscopic procedure, it was discovered that she had a slight tear in her posterior cruciate ligament. Doctors repaired the damage and she was back in business in time to reach the finals of the French Open, where she lost to Iva Majoli.

Martina was back in top form for Wimbledon, whipping Jana Novotna in the final. At the U.S. Open, she beat teenage upstart Venus Williams in the “youngest” Grand Slam final in history. In all, Martina won a dozen singles titles in '97, and added eight more doubles crowns. She pocketed more than $3 million in prize money, obliterating the old WTA tournament winnings record.

The law of gravity seemed to take hold of Martina in 1998. She defended her Australian Open singles title, and calimed the season-ending Chase Championships, but won only three other events in between—”only” being a relative term, of course. A nine-tournament drought that summer cost her the #1 ranking, which she had held for 80 weeks. Martina defeated the new top player, Lindsay Davenport, in the Chase, but finished the year ranked second. She might have held on to the top spot but had to pull out of a fall tournament after spraining her ankle jogging through the woods.

Martina definitely had a spectacular '98 season in doubles. Her court savvy and anticipation netted her the Grand Slam, as she won in Australia with Mirjana Lucic and in Paris, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow with Novotna. She also became the first female athlete to the appear on the cover of GQ—quiet a coup for the fashion-conscious teen.

Martina started 1999 with her third consecutive Australian title, defeating Amelie Mauresmo in the finals. She also won the doubles, teaming with Anna Kournikova. Martina then beat Graf and Novotna in Tokyo to reclaim her #1 ranking. As the French Open approached, she was on a roll. Martina had already won two clay court events, and cut through the Roland Garros draw for a showdown with Graf in the final. She came within three points of closing Steffi out, but the veteran survived to dump her teenage opponent in three sets.

Their match is considered by many to be the most thrilling in the history of the women’s pro tour. For Martina, it was the low point of her life. The stadium was pulling for Graf, and it eventually reduced her to tears.

Wimbledon was an even worse disaster for Martina. She came into the tournament having reached the semis of 11 straight Grand Slam singles events. But she ran into a buzz saw named Elena Dokic. The then-unknown qualifier— ranked 129 in the world—blew Martina off the grass. In New York, Martina answered the bell and made it to the finals, but waiting for her was Serena Williams, who took the championship.


Martina Hingis, 1997 SI for Kids
 

The emergence of the Williams sisters was a significant challenge to Martina’s continued success. Having come to the pros at a time when players like Graf and Seles were winding down their careers, she had been able to win against lesser opponents with guile, intelligence and mistake-free tennis. Martina was particularly good at the mind games played on the WTA Tour, both on and off the court.

None of these attributes, however, would keep her on the court against the kind of power tennis Venus and Serena were starting to perfect. Like the other women on the circuit, Martina was overwhelmed when the Williams sisters had their -games going. Meanwhile, their mental toughness rivaled Martina’s, making it very difficult to creep inside their heads during matches.

The Williamses also posed a threat to Martina’s public image. She was not shy about sharing her thoughts with the press, or being seen out on the town when other players might have been preparing for the next day’s battle. She was blunt and forthright with friends, enemies and fans, and rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. For example, Martina alienated some during the Australian Open when she called Mauresmo, her opponent in the final, a “half-man.” Mauresmo was openly gay.

Tennis people railing against the impertinent champion gained strength as the soft-spoken, charming Williams sister began to muscle their way into the spotlight. Venus and Serena were the new "It Girls" of tennis. And Martina was not.

MAKING HER MARK

Still, the 2000 season was a great one for Martina. She reached 13 singles finals and won nine of them. In the other five events she played, she advanced to the semis three times. Although she failed to defend her Aussie crown, she won the doubles for the fourth year in a row, with a fourth partner, Mary Pierce. After losing her #1 ranking briefly, Martina regained it in Hamburg. She did not win Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, but remained a dominant player in both singles and doubles throughout the year. She and Pierce won the French Open dubs, and she teamed with Kournikova to take the Chase Championships in the year’s final competition.


Serena & Venus Williams, Got Milk? ad
 

Martina reclaimed her Australian singles championship in 2001, and did so in convincing fashion, beating her big-hitting nemesis Lindsay Davenport in the final. Martina also joined forces with Seles in the Aussie doubles to end Venus and Serena’s 22-match winning streak. In a thrilling final, they saved four match points in the third-set tiebreaker on their way to victory. The Williams sisters had seen about enough of Martina Downunder—she had also beaten them individually on her way to the singles championship. Her 6-1, 6-1 victory over Venus confirmed the fact that Martina was a truly masterful player.

Martina’s wonderful start was marred somewhat by an early exit that summer at Wimbledon. Nagged by a sore back, she lost in the first round to Ruano Pascual. Martina reached the semis in Paris and New York, but played much of the year in pain, thanks to an aching left foot. In the U.S. Open semifinals against Davenport, Martina’s season came to an end when she rolled her right ankle and tore ligaments. It ended a 73-week run as the world’s #1 player, as Jennifer Capriati snuck up on her and grabbed the top slot.

After surgery and rehab, Martina was back on the court in time for the Australian Open. Against Capriati in the final, she seemed to have things under control. But despite four match points, she could not put Jen away, who came back to score a three-set victory. The disappointment was tempered somewhat by another doubles championship in Sydney with Kournikova.

Martina won her 40th tour victory in Tokyo early in 2002, but the spring was marked by frustrating losses to both Venus and Serena Williams in big tournaments. Her left foot began acting up again and she withdrew from the German and Italian Opens. When rest failed to improve the situation, Martina went under the knife. It pained her top miss the French Open and Wimbledon—she had played in 29 straight Grand Slams, dating back to 1994.

Martina returned to the court that summer, but it was too much too soon. She tried to play through the pain in several events, including the U.S. Open, where she lost to Seles in the fourth round. She withdrew from the final three events of '02, and watched her ranking sink to #11.


Martina Hingis, 2001 Tennis
 

Was it worth the pain and potential humiliation involved in trying to reclaim her top ranking? Was tennis—a game she had loved and enjoyed—worth playing if it felt like a job? The more Martina pondered these questions, the farther her heart drifted from the sport. She announced in 2003 that she was taking an indefinite break. At the age of 22, she was essentially retired.

Over the next three years, Martina skied, rode horses, played some golf, made sponsor appearances, and did some tennis commentary. She enjoyed all of these diversions, but it felt weird waking up each morning knowing that, whatever she did that day, she was not going to be the best in the world at it. By 2005, Martina realized that only tennis could give her back what she had been missing.

The comeback began at the end of the year, at Fildrestadt, a favorite tournament of hers. Though she lost to the world’s 73rd-ranked player, she liked the rush of competition enough to announce that she would resume a full tennis schedule in 2006.

The tennis press predicted gloom and doom for Martina, citing the ignominious comeback attempts of past #1’s such as Bjorn Borg. Her tune-up for the Australian Open did not sway her doubters. Leading in the semis, she had to retire with a strained hip flexor. In her next event, she was dumped in the first round. The critics would have to wait for a couple of more weeks to eat their words.

At the Australian Open, Martina quickly became the talk of tennis. She unveiled a serve that touched triple-digits on the gun and was not afraid to stand inside the baseline and trade salvos with her opponents. Martina cruised to the quarterfinals, where she lost a spine-tingling three-setter to Kim Cljisters, the second seed. In the mixed doubles, Martina teamed with Mahesh Bhupathi to win the championship—her 14th career Grand Slam title and her first in the mixed. Martina was back.

Later in January, at the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo, Martina reached the finals by beating a shocked Maria Sharapova. A loss to Elena Dementieva kept her from capturing her first singles title since '02. Martina reached the quarters at Dubai and the semis at Doha before returning to the U.S. for Indian Wells. She upended #2 seed Lindsay Davenport before losing to eventual champion Sharapova in the semifinals. In her next tournament, Martina had Svetlana Kuznetsova on the ropes but blew match point in the third set. Kuznetsova went on to win the tournament.

The European clay court season started in frustrating fashion for Martina, as she let Venus Williams off the hook and squandered a 2-0 third-set lead to lose in the second round. Martina reached the quarters at Berlin, where she beat her third Top 10 player of the year and herself came within a hair of the Top 20.

Chapter One of Martina’s comeback concluded in Rome, where she beat five consecutive Top 20 players to win the Italian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the semifinal for her 500th career singles victory—one made doubly sweet by the fact that Venus had won the first set 6-0. It was vintage Martina in every way. She polished off Dinara Safina—younger sister of Marat Safin—in the finals to hoist a singles trophy for the first time in four years.

Perhaps the biggest change during that time is the reception Martina gets from the fans. Viewed as being cool and aloof, she was fun to root against even as she played the most elegant tennis on the tour. The heartbreaking chants of "Steffi! Steffi!" that Martina heard during their 1999 Roland Garros final are just now making sense to her. In 2006, the fans are yelling "Martina! Martina!" Tennis never felt so good.

MARTINA THE PLAYER


Martina Hingis, 2003 Net Pro
 

Perhaps learning from the disastrous attempts of other former #1’s who tried to return to tennis, Martina is doing it right. Eschewing a diva-like comeback, she has traveled to the far corners of the earth and shown a willingness to grind out victories against lesser opponents. She has also absorbed losses on days when nothing seemed to click, but continued to soldier on.

The old game is there. She probes opponents for the weaknesses, and changes the parameters of her matches to swing the momentum in her favor. Players drooling for a shot at her when she returned in early 2006 are now scanning the draws to see if and when they might have the misfortune to play her. Martina has a way of making her opponents look as bad as she looks good, and no one wants a piece of that.

With the motivation clearly there to reclaim her status as an impact player, health is now the issue. Two bad feet and a balky back drove her from the game, and any of those problems could crop up again. Although she has amped up the pace of her game, Martina is not hitting cannon shots across the net like so many other players, so the risk of “overdoing” shouldn’t be a problem.


Martina Hingis, 2006 Tennis

 

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