Monday, September 21, 2015

Martina Hingis eyes more trophies in 2016

Martina Hingis is already in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But that's not good enough for her. She's going to keep winning championships until they build a new wing in her honor.

The 34-year-old Swiss has reached top form after coming out of retirement late in 2013. For starters, she and Leander Paes won three mixed-doubles major titles this year -- something that hasn't been done since 1969.

"The understanding we have for the game and each other is amazing," she said after they triumphed in the U.S. Open final last week. "Even if one thing doesn't work, we come up with a plan B or C, like we did today. I just feel like we're almost invincible going on court."

Hingis could say the same thing about her connection with Sania Mirza, with whom she won the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open women's doubles titles this year.

The player who was not so affectionately nicknamed Chucky, after the creepy horror-movie doll, initially retired from tennis following the 2002 season, citing chronic injuries. She was 22. But she returned to the game not long thereafter in World Team Tennis, the U.S. league where broken-down pros and former college players go for a low-key reminder of their salad days. But while hitting and giggling, Hingis realized something: she still loved competing. She has helped lead the Washington Kastles to five straight WTT championships.

Hingis was the best women's player in the world for a couple years in the late 1990s. She won three of the four major singles titles in 1997, when she was all of 16. She also won the Australian Open in 1998 and '99. She was not a humble champion, once referring to herself as "The Queen" and dismissing 1998 Wimbledon champ Jana Novotna as "old and slow."

And, let's face it, she got a little lucky in her singles career. The great Steffi Graf, 11 years her senior, was beset my injuries in '97, losing early in Melbourne and Roland Garros, and missing Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. (Hingis was 0-4 against Graf in Grand Slam tournaments in her career, including a memorable clash in the 1999 French Open final. The French Open is the one Grand Slam singles title Hingis failed to secure.)

Then, of course, Venus and Serena Williams showed up, and Hingis' luck ended altogether. Hingis relied on guile, and that just wasn't enough against the Williams' athleticism and power.

In 2013, after an aborted comeback in singles and a stint as a coach, Hingis decided to return to the tour solely as a doubles player. And it is here, in the team discipline, that she needs no luck at all. Her smart, precise, tactical game is perfectly suited to doubles. She won the women's doubles Grand Slam -- all four major tournaments in one season -- in 1998, partnering with Mirjana Lucic and Novotna. With the two women's doubles majors she's scored this year, she now has 11 total. (She also has four mixed-doubles majors, which is nice, but some players -- and a lot of fans -- view the mixed game as barely a step up from exhibition play.)

She has no chance at catching the all-time doubles leaders. The legendary Martina Navratilova, after whom Hingis was named, won 31 women's doubles majors. But Hingis is padding an already impressive C.V., and -- now more mature and enjoying herself on court -- she's winning over new fans.

Hingis has proved something no one thought possible: there can be a second act in tennis. And she's making the most of it. The way she and Mirza have melded their talents on court, you have to like Hingis' chances at winning a second doubles Grand Slam. Even the great Navratilova never did that.

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