Humility, thy name is ... Hingis?
Johnette Howard August 29, 2007 Article tools
Martina Hingis won her first-round match yesterday for the 10th time in 10 visits to the U.S. Open, but nearly everything else about her has changed. She's no longer the diva who, at the height of her career, wouldn't hesitate to verbally chainsaw a rival down to size or launch into a now-infamous locker-room fight with doubles partner Anna Kournikova that left them both hurling flowers at each other while screaming about who was the bigger bombshell, the hotter star.
As an imperious teenager, Hingis once fired her own mother as her coach just before Wimbledon, and finished a stint as a WTA awards banquet presenter by ripping open the envelope to announce the winner and cracking, "Huh ... There must be some mistake. It doesn't say me."
Hingis' old shows of ego could make you laugh, cringe or nod understandingly - sometimes all at the same time. She's easily the haughtiest No. 1 player tennis has had in the last 10 years. She was a child prodigy who knew only meteoric success her first few years on tour. Then it all stopped, for a variety of reasons. She got hurt a lot. The players who came up along with her - the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Amelie Mauresmo - were all bigger, stronger, harder hitting.
Suddenly, being smart and fearless and fit like Hingis wasn't good enough anymore. Her cap-gun game and 5-7, 130-pound frame stayed the same.
To her credit, Hingis somehow navigated the shoals from child stardom to unwanted ordinariness better than most. When she left the tour in 2003, she didn't foresee that she'd end her retirement in 2006.
But this second act in her career very much becomes her, strange as it still is to find yourself using the words "humility" and "Hingis" in the same sentence, and odd as it is to sit in a news conference like yesterday's and hear Hingis talk philosophically about how genuinely nice it was just to get to play her brisk, 6-0, 6-3 dismissal of Mathilde Johansson of France in the main stadium - a perk she no longer takes for granted as the 16th-ranked player in the world.
"That felt really good," Hingis said. "My name's still out there. Not all the people get to play on Arthur Ashe Stadium ... I feel very proud."
Hingis is 26 now, and just a few weeks removed from a broken-off wedding engagement with Czech tennis player Radek Stepanek that she politely declined to talk about yesterday. Stepanek unilaterally announced that he and Hingis were through at a tournament on Aug. 13. Though Hingis' eyes winced slightly yesterday when Stepanek's name was brought up to her after her news conference, her practiced smile never fell off her face. Years of dustups and public life have left her mostly unflappable. She evenly said she never thought of skipping this tournament because of the breakup, or the hip, back and leg injuries she's been battling since before Wimbledon.
Since returning from her retirement with a run that left her No. 8 in the world for 2006, Hingis is constantly asked to contrast Then with Now. What people really want to know is how can a woman who rapaciously drank in stardom and success - being a star by 16, a world No. 1 and owner of five major singles titles by age 18 - and handle being an also-ran now?
But as early as 2000, Hingis' news conferences had started turning into confessional laments. She could see the end coming as well as anybody. The power players at the very top of women's tennis were passing her by. She acknowledged she could still beat anyone in the world on a given night. But asking her to beat, say, both Williams sisters and Davenport in succession at one of these two-week Grand Slam tournaments was just too much. That part of her career - contending for majors - was over. And it will be considered a miracle run if she gets to the final weekend here.
Still, Hingis couldn't bring herself to name anyone else when asked yesterday who she'd like to see win this tournament. "I'm sorry," she laughed. "I can't give another answer." But she did say this about Then vs. Now.
She said when she looks at younger players today, "I see the freshness, the hunger, all that. That's how I used to be. [But] sometimes, the older you get, maybe sometimes priorities change. You look at life differently ... the simple things. Right now, I don't feel like I want to miss a minute off, being out there, able to compete, all those things."
Her career arc has gone from superstar to survivor. This is bonus time to her. She still plays to win but insists, convincingly, that she doesn't need to win to enjoy playing.
"It's not like that anymore," Hingis said.