The Hingis dilemma
By Tony Profumo
It was the finals of women's doubles competition at the 2002 Australian Open. Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova were battling Arantxa Sanchez-Vacario and Daniela Hantuchova for the title.
It was Martina's third three set match in two days and looming on the horizon was Jennifer Capriati and a highly charged women's single final.
One of their opponents lofted a really good lob over the heads of Hingis and Kournikova. It was on Anna's side of the court, but she was caught a little flat footed. Martina saw the ball coming down and was faced with a choice of two moves. She could just concede the point, since she and Anna were probably going to win the match, anyway. Or, she could try to chase the lob down.
Martina took off like a shot and got the ball back into play and eventually, won the point when the talented Hantuchova was caught flat footed on a volley attempt. It was a spectacular play, but it also pretty much summed up the problem faced by Martina Hingis, tennis' most creative, most talented and most malaigned player these days.
Martina has often said that playing tennis is a little like playing chess. She's been known as the best tactician in the sport, but for the last few years, she's been losing the really big singles titles, and it appears that her off court stategizing is not nearly as good as her own court mastery of tactics.
Chasing down that lob is something most players simply would not have even attempted, or at best,they would have started for the ball, then let it go. But Martina Hingis is not most players. Martina Hingis loves the sport she plays. Sure, it was going to sap some of her energy to chase that lob down, but she might be able to get to it, and if she threw up a good enough shot of her own, she might get the ball back into play, and then she might just be able to win the point.
That point points out Martina's current dilemma and also, something of tennis' dilemma. Hingis is not only the most accomplished shotmaker in the business, she is also one of the few top players who goes out there because she enjoys her profession. You could almost see the wheels turning in her head when she took off after that lob. It was one more impossible shot she wanted to make, just for the thrill of making an impossible shot.
The trouble is, Hingis found her self in the finals the next day facing defending champ Capriati after having played nine sets of tennis in the previous two days. How much did that contribute to her downfall? No one,not even Martina herself, knows for sure. But she suffered from the heat so much in the final that she admitted not wanting to go back out on court for the third set.
Of course, Martina Hingis did go back out. She always does. It takes the kind of on court injury that she sustained in Felderstadt, Germany last fall to keep her from finishing a match. In an era when some players will pull out over a bad hair day, Hingis remains committed to the idea that you don't quit before the match is over, end of story.
She didn't quit on her next tournament, either. Despite what must have been a gutt wrenching loss and honest physical problems, Hingis soldiered on to the next stop on the tour, Tokyo, when many other players would have claimed fatigue or come up with some other excuse about why they couldn't keep their commitment.
But here in lies the rub. Hingis has been pillared mercilessly in the tennis press for the last three years for using the computer to hang on to the number one ranking. The truth is, she has played about the same number of tournaments as most other girls on the tour, and far fewer than a few others. But the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport played less, so rather than being praised for living up to the
responsibilities of her position as the world's number one player, Hingis has been savaged by the media.
But is the media right? Should Hingis play less? It might actually work out better for her, since she usually seems to do well when she comes into tournaments well rested. After all, it is not that she cannot beat the big players. Her record last year was 1-1 against Venus Williams, 2-1 against Serena Williams, 1-1 against Davenport. It's beating two and sometimes, three of them in a row at the end of long tournaments which has proven impossible for her in the last couple of years.
But the promoters and organizers of smaller tournaments will probably miss having the Swiss Miss around. While a controversial figure, she is also one of the most admired people in the sport, with a strong personal following.
Others think she should pass on doubles play, just as most top men have done for years, and just as more and more of the top women now seem to be doing.But tennis certainly won't prosper from that either. The Hingis/Kournikova duo is one of the most successful doubles teams around, winning all but a couple of tournaments they have entered. They are also the most glamourous act the sport has today and bound to become an even bigger act if they keep playing and keep winning. Women's doubles is going to become a TV sport because of them.
In fact, rather than getting Martina to stop playing doubles, it seems to me tennis should do things to make doubles a more player friendly competition. How? Rain delays backed up the scheduling at the Australian Open, but I still see no reason why the ladies doubles final had to be played the day before the singles final. It should have been put off until later Saturday evening, or even scheduled for Sunday morning, before the men's doubles match. The added option of getting to see Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova on court before the men's final probably would not have driven too many paying customers away.
But there in a nutshell is the problem. Does Hingis, who loves to play tennis, pull back; does she play less tennis so she can win more singles titles? Do you make her unhappy, the promoters unhappy, and ultimately, the fans unhappy, so that she can place more grand slam singles trophies in her trophy case?
While some players have made it plain their lives don't exactly revolve around tennis, one of the sport's most devoted players; it's most accomplished shotmaker and strategist; and the one top player who tries the hardest to live up to her responsibilities; has to decide if she should cut back. Should she do less of what she loves so she can be more successful.
And will the fans wind up being the poorer for it?