A tale of two rivals: Venus, Hingis mirroring each other
A tale of two rivals: Venus, Hingis mirroring each other
Venus is riding high on Wimbledon success, Martina is inspired to keep up
By Matthew Cronin, ********************
FROM THE ACURA CLASSIC IN SAN DIEGO – Not every tournament is a flashback to 1997, but when Martina Hingis and Venus Williams are in the same locale – like they are at this week's Acura Classic – their names slip easily off each other's lips.
Hingis is taking motivation from her great rival, the same woman whom she schooled in the '97 US Open final. After besting Virginie Razzano 6-2, 6-4 on Wednesday, Williams thought back to an 11-week period when she gained the No. 1 ranking in 2002.
"It was hard to hold on to because Martina was playing more than I was," she said. "It was elusive."
Actually, it was Jennifer Capriati and her sister Serena Williams whom she was vying with then, not Hingis, who was beginning to decline. Like her likeable but spacey mother, Oracene, Venus' recollection skills have never been that great, so she was probably thinking back to 2001 and 2002 when she went back-to-back at Wimbledon and the US Open and when Hingis was more of a factor.
But Hingis has keen recollection skills and still puts herself on par with Venus, who along with Serena, represents a large part of her personal bar.
"When I saw what she did at Wimbledon, it did inspire [me] to think I might be able to do the same again," Hingis told ********************. "You see in two out of three Slams that the Williams sisters won and were able to bounce back not having played that much over the past few years and you are a little surprised."
Unlike in 1997, when Hingis ruled the roost by grabbing three out of the four Slams and spoiled Venus' coming out party in the US Open final, Hingis is now looking up at Venus. Sure, at No. 13 she's ranked slightly higher than the No. 16 Williams, but Venus just won her sixth Slam title at Wimbledon, giving her one more major than the Swiss. Don't think that doesn't matter to the proud rivals. Venus is playing so well now that she has to be considered the early favorite to win her third US Open crown, while Hingis is merely hoping that she can stay healthy enough to reach the second week.
Hingis needs a huge week in San Diego to get her confidence back, while Venus is so full of confidence that it seems like she could skate to the final on good days and bad. She says she's in the proverbial zone.
"I'm playing better than at Wimbledon," she said. "My first serve percentage was crazy at Wimbledon and I hit as hard as could and it just went it. Every time I would go for it and I was blessed to get it in. There's a determination part of it. My level is going up every day. It was huge boost to win a Slam and this tournament will help me, too."
Venus is in her healthiest stretch since 2005 and now has gone more than six months without pulling out of a tournament. She thrilled that she's finally healthy again.
"I'm the anti-Venus," she said. "I finally have two legs to stand on. I'm playing a lot of matches. I don't want to be injured any more and have to work so hard to be where I want to be. I'm at a really wonderful place in my game where I can stay there and keep getting better."
She has no idea why she's healthy again, but she is. And, as the world saw at the AELTC, she's crushing her serve and forehand, the two most up-and-down parts of her game.
When she's nearly unbreakable and when a foe cannot hammer balls into her forehand side, she's as good as better as anyone on the planet.
"My forehand has improved the most this year," she said. "It's awesome."
Why? She won't really say, but there's no doubt that she's completely following through on the shot and it's also safe to say that during her time off due to a left wrist injury last year, that it was the only stoke she could hit and she benefited by all the hours she spent honing it. Much the same happened with Kim Clijsters and her forehand when she injured her left wrist.
The Williams sisters are frequently criticized for not caring enough and pulling out of too many events. While that criticism has some merit when it comes to Serena (who has pulled out of four events in a row and appears doubtful for LA next week with a thumb injury), it has no justification when it comes to Venus.
Look at her schedule since Roland Garros: Wimbledon, Fed Cup, World TeamTennis and now San Diego. She nutted up and played Fed Cup just a week after winning Wimbledon, a big risk that she was willing to take for her nation and her friend, Zina Garrison.
"It was the anti-vacation," she said. "It was tough mentally and physically. It was the ultimate challenge to play something so competitive after Wimbledon. It takes a lot out of you."
When asked to recall the super skinny girl with red white and blue beads who wowed New York in 1997, Venus said, "She was really silly and knew nothing about tennis but she had a little bit of heart and that counted in the end."
Venus has made a few life changes as of late. She has a steady boyfriend, golfer Hank Kuehne, and her first dog (the many others were Serena's), a Havanese puppy named Harry that she caries around in a bag.
She called herself a single mom when it comes to the dog, but isn't looking to overly impress Hank when it comes to her knowledge of the. She doesn't play golf, although she has driven a few balls at her dad's house, and has tagged along at a few of Hank's tournaments. At first, she had no idea what was going on. She describes golf as a "long walk after practice."
"He said go out there on the first hole by that bunker and I asked, 'What's a bunker?" she said.
Williams says that like her, Kuehne "seems really good and powerful" and she says she doesn't get too nervous watching him.
"Golf is not as fast as tennis but if there's a close putt you can go, 'Ooohhh.' Tennis you are in the moment and it's like a series. He hasn't had as many close ones like me and I don't want him to live on edge."
She also isn't planning on yelling out, "You da man!" "I don't think he appreciate that and I don't want to distract, so I'll just let Serena do it."
Like Venus, Hingis is 27-years-old, but she hasn't been healthy in five months. After beating Michaella Krajicek in her opener, she said it was the first time that she felt normal since Miami.
After bombing out of Wimbledon early in a tournament she should not have played, she went to Germany to visit doctors and work out, and then went home to Switzerland to visit and practice with her mother, Melanie.
"I feel like I'm where I want to be," she said. "The endurance and cardio will come with more matches."
Hingis remains enigmatic. She told TR that "the fire is back on," because she's feeling healthy, but cautions that another injury could extinguish it.
"If your body doesn't let do things you should be [doing], it gets hard on the mind and motivation because you know what you should be doing and you are not and it doesn't give you a huge chance at success. It can vary. Sometimes I have very fast thoughts. When I feel better I say I can continue for another five years, but then when I am not, I say, 'Do I really have to do this to myself?' If everything is great and I'm playing well and winning, I feel go on forever. And, if I'm not, I say why all the hassle and the travel? It's very close. Sometimes in a few weeks I can be a totally different person. You talk to me at Wimbledon and I'm one way, and then now I'm another person who is saying the fire is back."
Both Melanie and Martina's fiancée, Radek Stepanek, are telling her the same things: Get a high percentage of her first serves in, make no errors off the ground and attack the net more. Sounds easy, right?
"I have so many people trying to tell me what to do," she said.
Hingis says she needs matches, but also says that she'd consider playing a Serena-type light schedule next year. She's a type of player who seems to perform better at tournaments where she has prospered in the past.
She won the Acura title in 1997 and 1999 and is hoping, as Venus might say, to be blessed by a cool breeze off the Pacific. The SoCal mojo seems to seeping into her circle; Stepanek won LA two weeks ago.
"This has a good place for me in the past where I've rebounded after some bad Wimbledons and I made a statement that I can compete well again."