Hingis back in happier form to call the shots in Paris
The Swiss returns after five years away and is ready to dig in for a first French title
Steve Bierley in Paris
Saturday May 27, 2006
One day, conceivably in a fortnight, the Parisian crowd may learn to love Martina Hingis, just as they adore Steffi Graf, six times the French Open champion. Yet memories of the 1999 final between the two still linger with an acrid smell and, although Hingis's return to Roland Garros, after a five-year absence, will capture huge attention, the often vitriolic crowd on the Philippe Chatrier court will be watching her like a hawk.
Seven years ago Georgina Clark, the WTA supervisor at the time, was expecting fireworks. "There was a feeling of tension all around. I suppose it was having Steffi in her ninth Roland Garros final and the expectations heaped on Martina's head. And then she imploded." It was extraordinary by any standards. Hingis, trying to win the one major to have eluded her, was leading Graf 6-4, 2-0 and "home and hosed" as Clark vividly remembered this week. Then came the fateful moment.
In the third game of the second set the Swiss contested a call, which she had every right to do on clay, and Anne Lasserre dutifully descended from her umpire's chair to check. "Unfortunately she took her eye off the mark and picked the wrong one," said Clark. "It's something that is still used in umpiring schools. The ball had been in and Hingis was right."
But when the call went against her, Hingis stalked around the net to look herself, a tennis crime on a par with verbally abusing the speaker in the House of Commons. "Gilbert Ysern [the tournament referee] was called and he was extremely anxious to take me with him," recalled Clark. "I don't think he wanted to be out there on his own." Eventually Hingis was persuaded to play on. "Had she gone on being obstreperous she might have been disqualified. Thank goodness she wasn't."
Nonetheless the transgression cost Hingis a penalty point and, effectively, the match. Graf, with the crowd now solidly behind her, won 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 with Hingis rushing off court in tears. Only the persuasive powers of her mother, Melanie, managed to get her daughter, still sobbing uncontrollably, back on court for the presentation.
"Steffi behaved impeccably throughout. She was just stunning," said Clark. "But, you know, I still feel Martina was right over the call, even if she reacted in the wrong way. She wasn't exactly cheated out of the title but she was certainly bamboozled and the crowd were very unfair. Obviously she can't have forgotten and there is no knowing how it may affect her if she manages to get to the final again."
Only a few months ago any such idea appeared out of the question. Hingis, the winner of five grand slam titles and just one victory away from the calendar grand slam in 1997 when she lost to Croatia's Iva Majoli in the Paris final, was history. She had retired at the end of 2002, when she was only 22, with damaged feet and a damaged ego. The power game, and notably the Williams sisters, had left her half a step off the pace, even though her tennis brain and range of shots still allowed her to beat all but the very best.
And so she set about constructing a new life, although the more she watched the game, either on television at home or from the commentary box, the more she yearned to return. By the end of last year, with Venus and Serena Williams verging on part-timers, and with no one else dominant, she announced her plans for a full-scale return.
That Hingis has risen to No14 in the rankings so quickly this year can be viewed two ways: one is that her former brilliance is undimmed and undiminished, the second is that the oft-touted depth in women's tennis is non-existent and the current generation of robotic baseliners are there for the taking for anyone with the wit and technique of Hingis. Obviously it is an amalgam of both. The youngsters frequently find themselves at a loss against her varied technique, although her win-loss record against the current top 10 this year is in the red.
Yet one glance at Hingis is enough to convince that she is deadly serious. The muscles are toned and her legs - "too short to beat my girls," Richard Williams once said - have developed greater power, which helps her always suspect serve. "She's obviously getting stronger in every tournament," said Kim Clijsters, who beat Hingis on her grand slam comeback this January in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. "There is nobody who hits the ball as clean and reads the game so well. That's just pure talent."
Victory over Venus Williams in the semi-finals of the recent Italian Open, followed by the title, her first on clay for six years, inevitably fuelled the notion that Hingis might finally win the title at Roland Garros. "I have hopes," she says, smiling. "At the beginning of the year, no. But having won a title since then, I've proved to myself that I can dig it out even when I am down. These are the key moments and the key matches where things can happen, where you can turn it around from somebody else's favour into your own."
Hearing these words, Graf too would no doubt smile.