Martina Hingis is getting ready to serve up a storm
Martina Hingis is relishing her return to doubles and her competitive spirit still burns as brightly as ever.
A glittering early career saw a youthful and charismatic 16-year-old Martina Hingis set records as the 20th century’s youngest Grand Slam winner when she won the Australian Open in 1997, beating former French champion Mary Pierce.
The talented Swiss tennis sensation went on to win five Grand Slam singles titles (three Australian Opens, one Wimbledon and one US Open) and nine Grand Slam doubles titles in her stellar career, with the French Open being the only tournament to escape her grasp, despite being a finalist in 1997 and 1999.
And now on the eve of her ninth French Open, where she plays with Sabine Lisicki in the doubles event, whom she coaches, a wiser Martina reflects on the wins of her career, which saw her spend 209 weeks as world No 1.
“They were all unique in their own way, but I think the one you win the first time is always very special. I felt like I really proved to everyone I could win a grand final at such a young age in Australia in 1997. People had their doubts that I would go all the way, but I proved them wrong,” says Hingis, who is now coaching future tennis stars at a new tennis centre in Barcelona.
“Winning is always special, but you don’t have a lot of time to celebrate as there is always another tournament coming up, you only have the time to think about it now, when you are not playing at that level anymore, so it’s different. You have time to reflect only at the end of the career.”
Coached for much of her career by her mum, Melanie Molitor, who is said to have named her daughter after another tennis great, Martina Navratilova, the racket champion feels very privileged to have learned the game from her mother. A professional tennis player who was once ranked 10th among women in Czechoslovakia, Melanie was determined to develop her beloved daughter into a top player even before she was born.
“My mother had a delight for tennis, she was a professional, the hunger and willpower she had she would definitely have been in the top 50 in the world, if not much better. I was very grateful that she taught me how to play as I have been able to live the life that I have today.”
Back in her professional days on the tour, the Swiss star would enjoy a weekly training regime which consisted of four hours of tennis a day, an hour of fitness and then an hour recovery.
“It was like a six-hour day, my relaxation was part of it, as after lunch you would lie down and relax before a practice, the whole day was planned.”
Things were very different in those days.
‘I didn’t have a nutritionist, it was up and down with food but you find your own rhythm. My mum would try little things at home. When travelling it wasn’t always easy to have everything you need, but they make it a lot easier now for the players.
“They have gluten free pasta and bread which didn’t exist in my time, 10 years back we didn’t even know that people were allergic to gluten foods.
“We tried to eat healthy, salads, a lot of fish and then pasta for energy before games and, of course, we cut down on those pizzas.”
One thing, however, that irks the 33-year-old is the fact one has to be 18 years of age before they are eligible to play on the tour.
Whereas Martina, who has won 528 career matches and is well known by her fans for her trademark smile with her sparkling white teeth, made her professional debut in October 1994, two weeks after her 14th birthday.
“It’s great having set these records, but with all the rules they have today, it’s really hard, or almost impossible to play to set records which I have done and am very proud of.
“I don’t agree with the idea that girls are only free at 18 years of age to play because most of them have the skill or the potential to be out there playing at 16 years of age, like myself. I was able to start to play on the tour and become a professional at 14 years of age.
“At 16 years of age I was free and I didn’t have to wait until I was 18 years as this way they are losing three years because they have to continue to play juniors and then it takes longer to get adjusted.
“So that’s why you don’t see many youngsters, even if they have the potential, making the jump from juniors tennis to women’s tennis. They might be better tennis players sometimes, but they don’t last, the concentration is a bit different.”
Ligament injuries in both ankles forced the Czechoslovakian-born player to withdraw temporarily from professional tennis in 2002 at the age of 22. After several surgeries and long recuperations, Hingis returned to the WTA tour in 2006, climbing to world No 6 and winning three singles titles.
“Both times I came back after injury. The first time was probably easier to come back and make the finals of the mixed doubles at the Australian Open and have a good year, but the second time was a bit harder. During injury I tested new waters with some commentary and things like that.
“The first time I came back and beat Maria Sharapova and made it to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, that was definitely a satisfaction and then becoming No 6 in the world made it a good year.”
Hingis retired for a second time at the end of 2007, but in April 2013 she agreed to coach Russian athlete Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But after a disagreement about how to prepare for tournaments they parted company two months later.
As well as coaching for the last three years, in July 2013 Hingis announced that she was coming out of retirement to play a doubles tournament with Daniela Hantuchová as her partner. As of late, last year’s finalist in Wimbledon, Lisicki, is her playing partner.
“Now I play with Sabine, I coach her and help her. Her dad is her coach and I have known her since she was 10 years of age, she trained with my mother before so I knew her from then. We will meet in Paris to play Roland Garros. I’m mainly helping her and that’s my full-time job. We started the mentoring in Australia.”
Praising her game, Hingis adds: “Sabine is a very reliable player, the big points she can perform, she is really there and I’m looking forward to Paris now. I like playing on clay and love playing in Paris, I’ve never had a disappointing French Open, so I’m looking forward to it.”
With a doubles ranking of 57 in the world, Hingis gave a dazzling display in March 2014 when she played doubles at the Sony Open Tennis in Miami. She and Lisicki defeated Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in the final in straight sets, marking Hingis’ first title since she won the Qatar Ladies Open in 2007 and her first Premier Mandatory doubles title since winning the 2001 title in Moscow, where she was partnered by Anna Kournikova.
“I was coaching and helping Russian player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who was top 20 in the world, and helping Sabine, so with all the practice I was hitting them okay.
“I could definitely not play singles, but I still found I could play doubles and cover half the court and I proved that in Miami by winning the tournament, my first title in seven years, I proved this. It was a huge satisfaction as I didn’t expect to win.”
So, how is she getting on as a coach? “It is a new experience learning as a coach. I am still grateful to still have my mum and ask her advice. She still has so much more experience than I do.”
Speaking about the new tennis centre in Barcelona where she coaches and mentors an elite group of pros four hours a day she says: “I wish I owned it, but it’s a big club, one of the oldest in Europe and it’s a polo club. It has 25 tennis courts, hockey fields, 200 horses, paddle tennis, squash, fitness centre, it has everything.
“I wanted Sabine to come and train here, but she is German so she wanted to stay at home, but there are other girls such as Lourdes Dominguez Lino and Tommy Robredo who are training with me today.”
Also a horse enthusiast and accomplished rider, Hingis feels right at home in what was once the equestrian capital of the world when it was used for dressage, jumping and the eventing finals.
“I go riding a lot and I own a horse in Barcelona called Ragana and I’ve had him for five years. I really like to ride on the beach, I’ve been doing it since I was 11 and it’s nice to switch off.”
A sponsor of Nelsons Arnicare Arnica Cooling Gel, Martina uses the products to help relieve her aching muscles after playing tennis: “At the end of the day I rub it on my feet and legs to cool down the system. My players see me using it and they all ask about it so I recommend it. It used to be used in the horse medicine, so was very common to rub it on the horses’ legs after competition. I knew Arnica from the past in the horsey days.”
Playing an exhibition match in Moscow this month, Hingis will also play the US tournaments this year, but if she could coach any player on the tour who would it be?
“It’s difficult who I would coach now, I would need more time to think about that. I enjoy working with Sabine as she has great potential but there is always the combination where you wish you could mix the power of one player with the skills of someone else, the more talented the players, the more you have to push them.”