Martina Hingis – The Most Talented Female Tennis Player Ever?

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Before Federer arrived on the scene, Switzerland already had a World No. 1 in tennis in the shape of Martina Hingis. Unlike Federer, however, she was not Swiss by birth, as she was born in Slovakia and only moved to Switzerland as a young girl.

Hingis was a classic child prodigy.Her pedigree as a tennis player started with her father who was a ranked player in Czechoslovakia and later a coach.At the astonishingly young age of 12, she became a junior Grand Slam champion at the 1993 French Open and in the following year at the age of 14, retained her French junior title as well as winning junior Wimbledon.That autumn, still at the tender age of 14, she entered the women’s professional tour.Women’s tennis has its fair share of child prodigies, but Hingis must rate among the most successful.Like several successful young players of the past (Andrea Jaeger and Bjorn Borg), she also left the game prematurely and without perhaps reaching her full potential.

She reached the top of the game in the late 1990’s in that period between the demise of Monica Seles and Steffi Graf and the rise of the Williams sisters. What was notable about Hingis’ career was her almost equal success in both doubles and singles, a testament to her versatility.In this respect, she was more akin to that other champion, Martina Navratilova than for example, Steffi Graf. 

In singles, she amassed 45 career titles and seven Grand Slams. She managed to win titles at all of the Grand Slam venues except the French and it was the Australian which she won on three occasions which was her strongest venue.In doubles, she won nine Grand Slam titles (including a notable one-year Grand Slam in 1998) with four of these at her favourite Australian Open.To reinforce her affinity with Australia, her other Grand Slam (in the mixed) was also at Melbourne.In winning her first Grand Slam event in 1996 in the Wimbledon doubles at age 15, she became the youngest ever Grand Slam champion.Her name was suddenly on everyone’s lips.

Only three years after turning pro, she had the strongest year of her career in 1997.In that year, she won three Grand Slam singles titles, only missing out on the French Open at which she was the losing finalist.Her victory at the Australian Open made her the youngest Grand Slam singles champion in the 20th century at 16 years of age.The remaining years of the millennium were also to be fruitful ones for her with a number of further Grand Slam titles added to her tally.Within a short number of years, she virtually took the tour by storm.She first reached World No. 1 in singles in 1997 and in doubles in 1998, not yet out of her teens.

Hingis’ career was dogged by injury.A long-running ankle-ligament problem led to her decision to retire prematurely from the game in early 2003.She was only 23 years of age.In 2006, however, she rejoined the WTA Tour and in her first Grand Slam event at the 2006 Australian Open, managed to bag the mixed doubles event along with Mahesh Bhupathi.Although her return did not cause the ground under the tennis world to shake, she did manage to reach a respectable No. 7 in the world rankings at the end of that year.Her brief comeback came to an abrupt end in 2008 when a cocaine testing controversy caused her to retire from the Tour.

Since then, she has played some Team Tennis and a number of invitational events and has also pursued a brief media career.Not a power hitter, her play relied very much on touch and on methodical point-by-point and game planning to churn out victories.She was a prime exponent of baseline play.Having an adequate service and a far from imposing physical presence, she began to find herself at a disadvantage against the up and coming, power-playing Williams sisters.She would have certainly struggled in the current women’s game where power and strength are much more a feature than in her day.

Despite her dominance of the women’s game in the late 1990’s, she did not achieve the kind of records of champions of other eras such as Navratilova, Graf or Serena Williams.Much of this could be put down to her early break and retirement from the game, but the arrival on the scene of the Williams sisters also changed the nature of the game and left a player with her attributes at a disadvantage.One can only speculate, but who knows how far she could have gone if she had played on for longer?

This year gives Martina Hingis good reason to celebrate.The International Tennis Hall of Fame has announced that she will be one of their inductees for 2013, a fitting honour for an outstanding player.The ceremony takes place in July at their HQ in Newport, Rhode Island where Hingis will receive the award along with fellow inductees, Ion Tiriac, Cliff Drysdale and Charlie Passarell.

Overall, Martina Hingis has to be considered among the best women players ever.Only a few can claim to have held a number one world ranking, however, which she did over an extended period in the late 1990’s or to have won as many Grand Slams as she did.She was not quite in the same group as Margaret Court, Billie-Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf or Serena Williams, but a notable champion nonetheless.

 

 

Paul McElhinney

June 12th 2013

  

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