My Point: Missing the Other Martina...by Jon Wertheim
From the April 2005 issue of TENNIS Magazine
During her heyday atop the rankings in the late '90s, Martina Hingis--and we put this mildly--cut a polarizing figure. You either appreciated her cunning tennis as a bulwark against the brute force of her opponents, or you hissed that her success coincided with a soft period in the women's game and despised the smug smile that crept onto her face for seemingly any reason at all.
What was that nickname Mary Carillo gave to Hingis? Oh, right: "Chucky." It was a nod to the horror-movie doll that grinned as it massacred.
Yet today, a little over two years since she left the WTA tour, Hingis is tennis' answer to Jim Morrison: a performer whose popularity has spiked in her absence. We love her madly now that she's walked out the door. At a recent exhibition in Europe and during her main-draw cameo at the WTA's Pattaya City event in February, Hingis was the star attraction. Her Web site continues to generate hits at the pace of Ichiro. When she makes guest appearances at majors, usually to deliver television commentary, she's given a heroine's welcome in the locker room. "It's nice," she says of the Miss Popularity status that eluded her as a player. "I don't know why it is, though."
Maybe the tennis salon has warmed to Hingis because it's become painfully clear that no current WTA player comes close to replicating her style. Hingis' knack for strategy is conspicuously absent from today's game. Those feathery volleys and disguised topspin lobs and nasty drop shots seem like relics against the backdrop of today's relentless baseline bashing. Even Hingis' commitment to doubles--36 of her 76 career titles came in the company of a partner--is virtually unknown among today's stars.
But we also miss her color and candor, her refusal to let minders and handlers suppress her thoughts. True, there were times when she could have used an internal censor. But in a time when players recoil from opinion like a hand from an open flame, the sport could desperately use a Hingis filibuster. A fond personal recollection: I interviewed Hingis shortly after she underwent "media training" in the wake of her 1999 French Open debacle, in which she lost her mind and the final to Steffi Graf. My fear that she had undergone a personality lobotomy was assuaged when Hingis characterized the session as useless. "They didn't tell me anything I didn't already know," she crowed, her Chucky smile squarely intact. A few days later she was back to swapping trash talk with Richard Williams, and all was right with the world.
Hingis retired in early 2003, and while she cited a bum foot as the cause, one wonders whether it didn't really owe to a stress fracture of the psyche. Despite her tactical and technical expertise, Hingis, at 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, was outpaced first by the so-called Big Babe brigade and then by an army of young sluggers. After coming within a match of achieving a Grand Slam in 1997, Hingis won just two more major titles.
(If Jim Morrison's famous anagram was "Mr. Mojo Risin'," Martina Hingis' seemed to be "I Am Tarnishing.") Maybe, as her ranking slipped, she asked herself why she was still at it, especially when she had both money and other interests in abundance. When the answers were slow in coming, she called it a career.
True to form, recently Hingis has been coy about her plans. She has said that she's happy with her life in repose and harbors no interest in making a comeback. But then she plays a full slate of exhibitions and enters the Tier III Pattaya City tournament. "It's just for charity," her management people explained dismissively. Maybe. But it sure sounded like a choreographed strategy for testing the waters before taking the plunge. For all we know, Hingis could be officially "unretired" by the time you read this.
And why not? She's 24, hardly ancient even in tennis years. Given the decline of the Williams dynasty, the imminent retirement of Lindsay Davenport, and the WTA's injury-o-rama, it isn't hard to envision Hingis returning to preeminence. Hingis duking it out with the comparably sized Justine Henin-Hardenne? Matching wits on clay with Anastasia Myskina? Exploiting Maria Sharapova's inexperience and indifference to strategy? Love Hingis or hate her, any tennis fan would warm to that. They made a sequel or two to Child's Play, the movie that introduced Chucky to the world. Here's hoping tennis gets one too.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams