Legacy Cemented, and Career Renewed
By BEN ROTHENBERG
Published: July 29, 2013
WASHINGTON — For most athletes, induction to their sport’s hall of fame would be an ending of sorts. But for Martina Hingis, it was just another beginning.
Days after her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame earlier this month, for which she had to be retired for five years to be eligible, Hingis announced that she would un-retire for the second time. Hingis, who turned pro at 14 and retired for the first time at 22, is only 32, about a year older than Roger Federer and Serena Williams.
She will return to competition this week at the Southern California Open in Carlsbad, playing doubles with Daniela Hantuchova.
“I feel good in doubles,” Hingis said shortly after her announcement. “I always said I was a much better doubles player than a singles player, because the hands I always had, obviously. The intelligence about doubles is about teamwork, and it’s also necessary to have the right partner, and I think in Daniela, I have a great partner. We’ll just see how it goes.”
Hingis has committed to four events after Carlsbad: in Toronto; in Mason, Ohio; in New Haven; and the United States Open. She plans to play all five tournaments with Hantuchova, a friend and tour veteran from Slovakia, where Hingis was born.
Hingis began her professional career in 1994 and won five Grand Slam singles titles by 18. She spent 209 weeks at No. 1 in the WTA singles rankings, the fourth most ever. Hingis also won nine Grand Slam women’s doubles titles and spent 35 weeks at No. 1 in doubles.
She first retired in early 2003 at 22 because of nagging foot and ankle injuries, which led to a lawsuit against her shoe sponsor Sergio Tacchini. She occupied her time at home in Switzerland, studying English and riding horses.
In early 2005, Hingis returned to play a small WTA tournament in Thailand, then played World TeamTennis in the summer before announcing a full-time comeback to the tour, which began in 2006.
That comeback included a run to the Australian Open quarterfinals in her first month back, as well as titles at large tournaments in Rome and in Tokyo, and a peak of No. 6 in the rankings.
But at the end of the 2007 season, Hingis was revealed to have tested positive for cocaine during Wimbledon. A trace amount was detected in a urinalysis.
Hingis was handed a two-year suspension and was barred from the grounds of all tournaments. She retired again the day the test result was revealed.
The ban lapsed in 2009, but it took a lasting emotional toll, said Lindsay Davenport, an old rival but a close friend.
“That definitely scarred her emotionally,” Davenport said. “That was not easy for her. And then to be not welcome in tennis for two years; you forget, you’re not even allowed to go watch. And that hurt her deeply. And so I think when that was lifted, she wasn’t exactly ready to re-embrace the tennis world. It took her a little while to heal from those wounds and get to a place where she felt that she had moved past that.”
At a show-jumping competition in 2010, Hingis met the French equestrian Thibault Hutin, and married him later that year. But the demise of their marriage has recently become tabloid fodder in Switzerland, proving a distraction that Davenport says has further pushed Hingis toward recommitting to tennis.
“I think she needs something else to focus on,” said Davenport. “And that’s been the tennis.”
Hingis had worked as a coach for Mouratoglou Academy in Paris since 2011, and this spring, she returned to the tour as the coach of the Russian player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Practicing and traveling with Pavlyuchenkova, Hingis felt comfortable back in the environs of the tour and felt ready to compete again.
Hingis has eased into competition the way she did in 2005, by playing World TeamTennis, this time with the dominant Washington Kastles. Although Hingis said a return to singles on tour was not something she was considering, she won all but one of her singles matches during the season.
She drew particular confidence from a 5-1 rout of Eugenie Bouchard, a highly regarded Canadian teenager who was then ranked 56th.
“I was impressed,” Hingis said of her own form. “She’s 56 in the world, right? So I was feeling pretty good about that one.”
Her singles form seemed to impress more than just herself: the Kastles’ owner, Mark Ein, said that Serena Williams, in attendance at one of the Kastles’ matches, told him she believed Hingis would be “top 10, for sure” if she came back to singles.
Davenport and the retired doubles specialist Rennae Stubbs have predicted Hingis will return to singles at some point, but for now, her comeback remains limited to doubles. Covering half the court is less physically demanding, and Hingis said the difficulty of doubles competition was down significantly since the early part of her career, when top singles players like her and Davenport regularly played in both disciplines.
“Today, you don’t see that anymore,” Hingis said. “So I think the doubles level has dropped, actually. So that’s why I thought, eh, we see how that goes.”
A foray into mixed doubles is likely at the United States Open, the event for which she is perhaps best suited.
In the World TeamTennis final Sunday night in Washington, which the Kastles won by 25-12 over the Springfield Lasers, Hingis put an exclamation point on her season by capably fending off the big-serving Andy Roddick in mixed doubles.
Hingis was able to return six of Roddick’s seven serves, and she and her partner, Leander Paes, won five of the six ensuing points. The performance left Roddick, who retired from the tour last September, with little doubt about Hingis’s chances of a successful return to top-level competition.
“She has probably the best racket skills of any female player I’ve seen, maybe her and Justine,” Roddick said, referring to the retired Justine Henin. “If she’s playing doubles and the ball comes to her, she doesn’t miss many. She’s going to be the smartest one out there. Yeah, I’m not worried about her chances.”
When asked how she succeeded against Roddick’s booming serve, Hingis gave a big smile and a short explanation.
“I was ready,” she said, beaming.