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Martina Hingis, a nearly perfect career

By Julien Pichené (with Guillaume Willecoq)   on   Monday 30 October 2017
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During the course of her glorious career, Martina Hingis won virtually every singles, doubles and mixed doubles title there was to win. One major prize to evade the Swiss player’s grasp, however, was the French Open women’s singles. It was the only Grand Slam title that evaded her, though she came close to making it hers on a couple of occasions.

The date is 5 June 1999, and Steffi Graf has just won her sixth French Open title, beating Swiss prodigy and the then world No1 Martina Hingis in three sets. Though it was Hingis’ second French Open final defeat in three years, she was still only 18. Given her obvious genius and the fact that she had won five Grand Slam singles titles already, she could expect several more bites at the cherry in the years to come. Graf was so convinced of her future success she had this to say to her opponent at the trophy ceremony: “Martina, you are going to have many more chances to win, so don’t worry about it, please.”

As it turned out, however, the German great was wrong. Hingis would not add to that tally. A fine tactician but lacking in firepower, the Swiss was about to succumb to 21st-century tennis and the hard hitting espoused by the likes of the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati. Making the most of her outstanding game management skills and technical gifts to match, Hingis continued to fight for the major titles, most notably reaching three consecutive Australian Open finals between 2000 and 2002, but without adding to her Grand Slam tally. As for the French, she would make only three more appearances in the singles, failing to reach the semis on each occasion.

“It’s funny, but I’ve always thought that I’d win this tournament sooner or later,” said Hingis in reference to the French Open in May 2000. “I even thought I’d win my first Grand Slam event at Roland-Garros.” Though it seemed inconceivable at the time, she too would turn out to be wrong, her precocious talent never proving enough to make the French Open hers.

Six French Open titles... but no women's singles

In the minds of the fans, Hingis is a member of the distinguished but cursed band of players who never tasted glory at Roland-Garros, along with Maria Bueno, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras, “Cursed” might seem a strong word, especially when applied to a player who lifted no fewer than six trophies in Paris. Three of them came in the juniors: the singles in 1993, when she became the youngest winner of the title at the age of 12 – a record that is likely to stand for some time – and the singles and women’s doubles the following year. Hingis also won two women’s doubles titles proper (in 1998 with Jana Novotna and 2000 with Mary Pierce), and the mixed doubles in 2016 with Leander Paes.

In failing to add the French Open singles title to her collection, Hingis fell just short of joining Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court and Doris Hart as the only players to have won every possible title (singles, doubles, and mixed doubles) at all four Grand Slam events, a feat no male player has ever achieved.

The youngest junior Grand Slam winner of all time in 1993, and the winner of the mixed doubles crown over two decades later, in 2016.

Emotions run high in 1999 final

There was a time when the question was when and not if Hingis would make the French Open singles crown hers. The winner of two matches in the main draw in 1995, when she was 14, the Swiss reached the final in 1997, a year in which she won the three other Grand Slam events and climbed to the top of the world rankings, proving her ability to win anywhere and without even breaking sweat at times.

Well, anywhere but on the red clay of Paris. Short of match fitness after falling from her horse, Hingis ran out of steam in that 1997 French Open final, losing 6-4 6-2 to Croatia’s Iva Majoli. In her second final in the French capital two years later, it was mental rather than physical problems that cost her as she went down to Graf.

Graf v Hingis in 1999: one of the top five French Open women’s singles finals of all time

Top 5 Women's Finals

Though the German had nothing left to prove that year and was only a month away from her retirement, she was determined to enjoy herself on her way out. Nevertheless, Hingis dominated the first half of the match and served for the title at 6-4 5-4. Her lack of self-control would ultimately cost her the match and the support of the crowd, however. As well as crossing the net to contest an umpiring decision, the teenager also served underarm on match point in the third set, losing her cool and showing her immaturity. Initially reluctant to attend the trophy ceremony, she ended the afternoon sobbing in the arms of her mother/coach, a heartbreaking scene that rounded off one of the most remarkable matches Roland-Garros has ever seen.

It was then that the generous Graf made that famous prediction. Time is an elusive commodity, however, and slips through everyone’s fingers, even those of a precocious genius.

Martina Hingis
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