One of the best tennis stories going these days is about a woman who could be called a smiling assassin. In the summer of 1994, International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Pancho Segura was extremely excited about a tennis player. He was particularly enthused about this player because she had an off-the-charts killer instinct. Given that Segura had coached Jimmy Connors and competed hundreds of times against Pancho Gonzalez, his standards in that department were quite high. “This kid’s name is Hingis,” he told me. “She’s 13 years olds and she’ll cut your head off – and she’ll like it.”
More than 20 years later, now 35 years old, Martina Hingis continues to relish the stage. To be sure, her singles career took an unusual ride. First, the precocious prodigy. By the time she was 18, Hingis had won five Grand Slam singles titles, including three straight here in Melbourne.
Then, the awkward adolescence. Beginning with her meltdown loss in the ’99 French Open final, concluding with watching championship points go away in the ’02 Aussie final, the Hingis party line was that during this period she began to feel overpowered by the ascent of the Williams sisters, as well as such formidable rivals as Lindsay Davenport (who beat her in the ’98 US Open and ’00 Aussie finals) and Jennifer Capriati (Hingis conquerer Down Under in ’01 and ’02).
While certainly this happened, Hingis had also neglected to put significant energy into her serve and fitness. As others overtook her, Hingis curtailed much of the tactical variety she had deployed in the earlier stages of her career. “You tell me how I’m going to net,” she said once after a narrow win over Venus Williams. The next day she was beaten handily by Davenport.
Though an ankle injury derailed Hingis for much of 2002, by the end of that year she also appeared world-weary, a once-inspired artist in search of fresh ideas. Three years followed without a Grand Slam singles appearance. Then, another comeback, Hingis in 2006 and ’07 reaching the top ten – a return ended by a positive cocaine test.
But in 2013, shortly after her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Hingis decided once again to return to competitive tennis – this time strictly in doubles, where Hingis had previously won Grand Slam titles with a variety of partners, including Helena Sukova, Jana Novotna and Anna Kournikova. Since coming back, Hingis has had many fine title runs, including a trip to the 2014 US Open finals with Flavia Pennetta.
In the last year, though, Hingis has struck gold in tandem with Sania Mirza. Yesterday, the duo informally known as “Santina” racked up its third straight Slam and 36th consecutive match victory, taking down Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova 76, 63. Said Hingis, “Our fairy tale continues.”
Lessons from Hingis-Mirza
Are there lessons recreational players can learn from the Hingis-Mirza duo? That’s a complicated question. Serve-and-volley doubles as many know it is absent from contemporary professional doubles. Instead, players mostly whack groundstrokes, server and returner scorching crosscourt forehands (or more accurately, down the middle forehands struck along the hypotenuse of the court). At some stage in the point – but not always — volleys enter the picture.
Hingis-Mirza have this down to a science. Mirza possesses a shot Hingis has never had – a bazooka of a forehand that clears out territory. Said Hingis, “She’s one of the hardest-hitting players out there . . . there’s not that many people who can match her in the forehand rallies.”
As Mirza blasts, Hingis acts as the consummate opportunist, a piranha on the hunt for a ball she can volley. Off the ground, Hingis’ backhand is still formidable – particularly in doubles’ half-court rallies. With her forehand, Hingis wisely often hits with plenty of topspin, mixing in pinpoint lobs and always looking to strike the ball early, cut off the court and get to net. Opponents get caught off off-balance by Hingis’ Muhammad Ali-like cuts (float like a butterfly, sting like a bee) and reel from Mirza’s Joe Frazier-like blasts. It is less orchestrated music ala Crosby, Stills and Nash and more all-star band in the manner of the Traveling Wilburys.
We’ll leave the matter of mimicking the Hingis-Mirza style to you, your partner, your skill sets and those of your opponents. Perhaps the most applicable lesson from these two: identify and maximize your team’s strengths.
But if it is rather jarring to see doubles played this way, it’s delightful to see Hingis in action. It’s fantastic to watch a great champion continue to bring her head and heart to competition. Hingis’ sheer love of tennis – particularly when it comes to applying her problem-solving skills – is an aficionado’s delight.