About 20 years and six months after she first became the World No 1 singles player as a 16-year-old, Martina Hingis climbed back to the doubles World No 1 spot in September 2017. The 37-year-old, who had once held both the singles and doubles No 1 rankings simultaneously for 29 weeks, will now retire as the top-ranked doubles player. The Swiss star called time on her superlative tennis career for the “third and final time” and the WTA Finals in Singapore will be her last competitive tournament.
Hingis’s 23-year-old long career, with its two retirements and 25 Grand Slam titles, can be best described by the incredible statistics it throws up. How else does one describe a player who has reached the finals of all four Grand Slams in all three disciplines (singles, doubles, mixed) and won Major trophies at the same venue 20 years apart?
In 1997, the then 16-year-old won her first title at US Open, her third Major after having won Australian Open and Wimbledon earlier that year. In 2017, she won two more titles at US Open – the women’s doubles with Taiwan’s Chan Yung-Jan and the mixed doubles with Jamie Murray.
While women’s tennis has thrown up amazing stories of longevity in the form of Venus Williams and even Serena, Hingis was a different case. The “Swiss Miss”, as she was called, was a prodigy who took the tennis world by storm in the 1990s scripting a bunch of youngest-ever records.
At 12, Hingis won her first junior Grand Slam, the French Open in 1993. At 14, she made her WTA debut at the Zurich Open. At 15, she won her first Grand Slam as a pro – the youngest Major winner in history – winning the women’s doubles at Wimbledon 1996 with Helena Sukova. At 16, she won the Australian Open, becoming the youngest Melbourne champ in history.
The Australian Open was just the beginning. Her 1997 season turned out to be record-breaking. Apart from her three Grand Slam trophies, she notched a 38-match win-streak in singles to start off, became the youngest WTA No 1 in history – a position she would spend a total of 209 weeks at – and ended the year as the top-ranked player. She won two more Australian Open titles in the next two years, but could not add any more to her tally with seven runner-up plates up till injuries forced her to announce her first retirement in 2002.
At the same time, she enjoyed great success in women’s doubles as well, becoming the top-ranked in 1998 and only the sixth player to hold the singles and doubles No.1 rankings simultaneously and winning nine Majors including the doubles Calendar Grand Slam in 1998. She was winning doubles Majors till a year before her retirement, winning the 20025 Australian Open with Anna Kournikova .
But it all came to a head when she retired at the age of 22 due to injuries. An early bloomer, her retirement came at an age where most players just found their feet.
She made a short-lived and relatively unsuccessful comeback in 2005 but stepped away two years later after failing a drugs test at Wimbledon in 2007. But it could not turn her back on tennis and returned as a doubles specialist in 2013 – a call that would make her extraordinary career even more illustrious.
The reinvention as a doubles player meant that she was back to being the World No 1 and added to her Grand Slam collection handsomely. Apart from her four women’s doubles titles, she forged a formidable mixed doubles career winning seven Majors in seven finals – four with Leander Paes, two with Jamie Murray and her first in 2006 with Mahesh Bhupathi – finishing a Career Grand Slam.
As tennis analyst Jon Wertheim put it, Hingis put together a Hall of Fame resume AFTER her actual induction to the Hall of Fame.
Hingis’s 64 career doubles titles came with 40 different doubles partners But her most successful partnership was with India’s Sania Mirza. “Santina” as the duo called themselves, played 31 tournaments together and won 14 of them, including three straight Grand Slams and the WTA Finals with a whopping 41-match winning streak at one point.
Her comeback as a doubles player also gave Hingis her only Olympic medal, a doubles silver with Timea Bacsinszky at the 2016 Rio Games.
As Hingis’s storied career draws to a close, the most remarkable aspect of it won’t be only her longevity. Lasting 23 years in a sport as physically taxing as tennis, even in doubles, is not easy. Her fitness, reflexes, commitment cannot be doubted; even when playing with Chan who is almost 10 years younger than her. But it is the fact that a record-breaking singles player reinvented her game to not only prolong her career but also stay on top of the field that sets Martina Hingis truly apart.
For all we know, her love for tennis may bring her back to the court soon enough, as she hinted in her farewell post. Till then, there’s a chance that Hingis may have one final hurrah – winning the season-ending WTA Finals with Chan.