Sunday, September 13, 2015

Martina Hingis & the joys of doubles

Women’s doubles gets no respect. You won’t find the game in prime time when you tune to ESPN to watch the U.S. Open. You couldn’t find it easily at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the Open has been taking place, during the first week, unless you were acquainted with the center’s reconfigured outer courts.

And you wouldn’t have found many fans joining you once you settled in to watch a match on, say, Court 4—day-pass holders preferred standing on line at Louis Armstrong Stadium for half an hour or more, hoping to see mid-ranked singles players from upper-reach bleachers, rather than having a courtside seat for women’s doubles.

Which is too bad—and strange, in a way. Too bad, because women’s doubles is at once a brainy and silky game, in which players plot two or three moves in advance, chess-like, while smoothly executing shots that don’t rely, as both men’s and women’s singles do (and men’s doubles increasing does), on power. 

And strange, because the many, many recreational players who make their way to Flushing Meadows, Queens, to watch the Open, if they are like the players I’ve seen at clubs over the years, mostly play doubles on their own time. To watch women’s doubles at the élite level is to observe the only sort of pro tennis left that bears much relation to the club game. Serves, for example, are often no faster than seventy miles per hour. Roger Federer and Serena Williams, back at Arthur Ashe Stadium? Like most professional athletes today, they are—stunningly, amazingly—playing a different game altogether, something that only in its rules and dimensions resembles the weekend hacking you do for your 4.0 team.

I’ve been spending a good deal of time at the Open watching women’s doubles matches. It has been eventful. The forty-two-year-old Lisa Raymond, who began playing professionally in 1993, went on to win eleven doubles titles (including five Opens), and has been partnering lately with fellow-American Madison Keys, tearfully retired after she and the twenty-year-old Keys lost to Laura Robson and Kirsten Flipkens, 6-2, 6-4. (Raymond will join Lindsay Davenport and her husband as a member of Keys’s coaching team.) A pair of seventeen-year-old Americans, 

Ingrid Neel and Tornado Alicia Black—playing their first Open together, and having won their first-round match—hung in for two sets against the seventh-seeded veteran Czech team of Lucie Hradecká and Andrea Hlaváčková before experience prevailed, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1. The Canadian dynamo Eugenie Bouchard fell on her head in the locker room and withdrew from doubles (and, a day later, from the singles draw). And fans who appreciate the game’s subtleties have been getting a master class courtesy of the No. 1-ranked women’s duo, India’s Sania Mirza and her soon-to-be thirty-five-year-old, once again unretired partner, the Hall of Famer Martina Hingis.

Hingis, of Switzerland, looks more lithe today than she did when, with her partner, the formidable Czech Helena Suková, she won her first doubles Slam, in 1996, at Wimbledon, at the age of fifteen. A year later she became the youngest Slam singles champion ever, by winning the Australian Open, and soon she was the youngest top-ranked player in history. But her reign at the top of the women’s singles game would prove short. 

There were injuries (leading to two ankle surgeries), and there were powerful players like Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters who began to push her around the court. It was her doubles game that was truly something else in the late nineties—displaying her instincts for court positioning and shot anticipation, and her array of sublimely killing volleys. In 1998, with two different partners, she won the in-year doubles Grand Slam.

Hingis’s only weakness was—well, in doubles, you have to play with someone else. She’d won three of those four Slam titles in 1998 with the Czech player Jana Novotná, but dumped her a year later, calling her “too old and too slow.” (Novotná was thirty.) She then teamed up with the Russian Anna Kournikova, better known for her commercials, perhaps, than her game—Hingis and Kournikova called themselves the Spice Girls of tennis—but even a good deal of winning couldn’t keep them together. 

In 2000, playing singles against each other at a for-the-money exhibition in Santiago, Chile, just weeks after winning a doubles championship at Madison Square Garden, the two got into it over a line call. During a changeover that followed, Hingis reportedly shouted at Kournikova, “Do you think you are the queen? Because I am the queen!” More screaming followed in the locker room, and vase throwing. Hingis dumped Kournikova for Monica Seles. That didn’t last, either.

Hingis has had a number of partners since returning to the W.T.A. tour last year: Sabine Lisicki, Flavia Pennetta, and Vera Zvonareva. (Hingis retired from the tour in 2003, at age twenty-two, through with playing in pain; she made a sputtering return, in 2006, but was suspended a year later after testing positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine.) She and Mirza, a hard-hitting baseliner and doubles specialist, first teamed up in March for this year’s BNP Paribas Open, at Indian Wells. They won that tournament, then the Miami Open, then the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina: twenty sets in a row. They won Wimbledon, too, earlier this summer, after going down 2-5 in the third set. On court this past weekend, Hingis and Mirza couldn’t have been friendlier toward one another.

There is a light-spirited quality to most women’s doubles matches, at least the ones I’ve seen over the years. No racquets get smashed, no chair umpires berated; players laugh at themselves when they miss overheads. Hingis smiled through her and Mirza’s Saturday rout (6-1, 6-1) of Timea Bacsinszky (Switzerland) and Chia-Jung Chuang (Taiwan), though she more than once put a finger to her head when one of her opponents hit a volley winner, as if to pantomime: that wasn’t a great shot; it was my poorly thought-through shot that put the ball on your racquet and made yours possible.

Hingis and Mirza won again on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They’re now headed to the women’s doubles final, which is scheduled for Sunday afternoon, just before the men’s singles championship. (Maybe ESPN will show a bit of it.) 

Watching them, it’s easy to see why they are having the year they are. Mirza pushes opponents back and wide with her big, flattened-out forehand, which provides Hingis with time and angles for her deft poaches. Hingis never stops moving when she is at the net, repositioning herself with every shot—something everyone is taught to do but few have enough focus or energy to keep up through a match. And Hingis makes very few mistakes, technically or strategically: she has an uncanny sense of where her opponents are. She brought Saturday’s second-round contest to match point by flicking a low-arcing top-spin lob over her net-hugging opponents. Then she finished things, on the next point, with an inside-out forehand touch volley out to the alley, as her opponents—she somehow glimpsed them—closed together in the middle.

Hingis took off her visor and smiled some more as applause for her swelled: at Mirza, at Bacsinszky and Chuang, at those of us sitting and standing alongside the court. We smiled back. It’s that kind of game, mostly.

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