HINGIS IN INSPIRATIONAL FORM
Multiple grand slam-winner Martina Hingis came to Thongsbridge last night.Sam Wheeler found the
Swiss superstar in upbeat mood.
IN her considerable pomp, Martina Hingis had a reputation for being something of a madam but two-and-a-half years of injury torment appear to have mellowed the former No 1 and sharpened her sense of humour.
Hingis, 24, was making an unlikely appearance in Kirklees as a late replacement for Tim Henman, who had agreed to be guest star at Thongsbridge Tennis Club's exhibition event.
Henman pulled out to play in Dubai but Thongsbridge, the Lawn Tennis Association's club of the year, did pretty well out of his withdrawal. Sponsors Adidas brought them Hingis and Seventies star Ilie Nastase, who both played matches in front of a packed indoor crowd.
"I know I'm not Tim Henman but I hope I'm a pretty good substitute for him," deadpanned Hingis, winner of five grand slam singles titles as a teenager. British No 1 Henman has never progressed beyond the semi-finals of a major.
The Czech-born player has been sidelined with ankle and heel injuries and made an abortive return to action last month, losing in the first round to a relative unknown. Such frustration can make sporting superstars testy and uncommunicative but Hingis was charm personified last night, cheerily signing autographs and posing for photographs.
On her first visit to the north of England, she gently mocked the Yorkshire accent of one reporter. "I don't understand you, can you speak proper English?" she asked, bewildered but giggling.
Hingis paid tribute to the facilities at Thongsbridge – transformed, according to development manager Mike Adams, from 'a small village club into one of the best tennis facilities in the UK'. The club now caters for 600 children.
"This place is great," said Hingis, whose career began at a small club which produced several professionals. "When you see a club like this with 600 children, there is hope. It's not just the facilities: it's more the people who put in all the effort and support it."
In her halcyon year of 1997, Hingis won every grand slam except the French Open. She was World No 1 for a total of 209 weeks. No one is dominating the women's game to that extent any more: all four of last year's majors went to a different player. "That makes me proud that I lasted for those years," she says wide-eyed, as if suddenly grasping the extent of her achievements.
It is not clear whether she still has the ambition to reclaim her place at the pinnacle of the sport.
"I have no intentions at the moment," she said when asked about her tournament schedule for this year. "I have no plans."
She recognises that tennis has moved on in her absence. It was starting to leave her behind even before her injury: her last grand slam title came more than six years ago, at the Australian Open in 1999.
In person, Hingis is tiny, far smaller than the low-ranking British women who were also in action last night. In one-off matches in the early part of this century, her touch, mobility and tactical acumen could cope with the might of the likes of the Williams sisters.
Doing it every week took too much toll on her body.
She said: "Physically, it has moved on tremendously. If you look at the girls three or four years ago and look at them now, they are all in great shape. Physically, you have to be up there if you want to mix it with them.
"The year is so long that it is difficult to play the Williams sisters 20 times each, and Davenport, Capriati, Seles. It's draining mentally."
The former champion, who started playing at two and became World No 1 at 16, has found interests outside the tennis court.
She commentates and carries out representative work for UNICEF and the World Health Organisation.
Although she misses the thrill of competition, she seems contented.
"I'm not as stressed as I used to be," she said. "If I lost, I was not going to be happy. But I've no reason to get angry now. My life doesn't push me to any limits like when I was playing."
Even if she never plays again, Hingis's place in the pantheon of tennis greats is assured, and she remains an inspiration to youngsters, from Thailand to Thongsbridge.
This article was posted by irinska at hingis.org and shows what great humour and condor Marti still possesses!