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Why

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

MARTINA HINGIS AND THE AUSTRALIAN OPEN: MEMORIES FROM THE HAPPY SLAM

There were not many who could stop Martina Hingis at the Australian Open from 1997-2002
Twenty years ago in 1995, a circumspect teenager entered the courts of the Australian Open with lots of confidence and a talent in plenty. It was the debut year at the Grand Slams for Martina Hingis and little was expected from a player who had turned fourteen barely few months ago.  She lost at the first hurdle in doubles and went one step further in singles. In the next seven years, Hingis would enter the quarter-finals each time - and from 1997 till 2002  she never missed a finals appearance in both singles and doubles.

She once said on Australian Open - "Even though I hated the preparation in December, I was always ready afterwards. The Australian Open was a real welcome tournament; everyone is happy to see everyone. This series of six consecutive finals is one of my greatest achievements. The surface helped me; you could win with any kind of game. I also loved playing in front of that audience".

EARLY DAYS
Hingis's first set in her maiden appearance in Australian Open was a statement in itself. She won 6-0 against the Austrian and five years her senior, Barbara Schett. That confidence and momentum was sufficient to win the next set and with it the match. She made the headlines and was termed as 'a future champion' by many experts as long as she would turn up consistently on globetrotting tournaments. Her fairytale start was cut short by the Japanese Kyoko Nagatsuka in straight sets in the next round. However, Martina Hingis had arrived on the big circuit and her first round win ensured she would be the youngest player to win a Grand slam match.

A year later, she was more experienced by playing on the mean courts with more seasoned professionals. She won four consecutive matches which took her to the quarter-finals without dropping a set and there she lost to the South African Amanda Coetzer, nine years her senior.

THREE WONDER YEARS
Ranked fourth coming into the Australian Open 1997, Martina had already tasted many successes on the WTA circuit and had a Grand Slam title to her name (Wimbledon doubles in 1996). The 16-year old sensation from Switzerland steadily made her way to the second week with a dominant display of smart play and placement of strokes.

Like the previous year, she did not drop a set and overcame the final three hurdles to claim her first singles Grand Slam title. I had a laminated poster of hers posing on a Melbourne tram with the Daphne Akhurst trophy. At 16 years and 3 months, she was the youngest Grand Slam winner in the Open era. (Lottie Dod won the Wimbledon as a 15-year old - however it was way back in 19th century before the Open era). She paired with Natasha Zvereva to win the doubles title as well.

With two more titles at Wimbledon and US Open - and a narrow miss at the French Open (lost to Iva Majoli in the finals), she was undoubtedly the favourite to defend her title. And defend she did, in a dominant fashion winning her second consecutive Australian Open defeating Conchita Martinez in straight sets. It was a twin delight as the duo of Hingis and Mirjana Lučić won the doubles second year running.

Having been displaced to number two by Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis was faced with a sizeable opponent who had outplayed her in many of their contests in 1998. The odds of Hingis-Davenport was the talk of the town in 1999 and it looked good going into the last two rounds of the tournament. While Hingis breezed through Monica Seles in the semi-finals, Davenport was stunned by the French sensation Amélie Mauresmo. Mauresmo was the dark horse of the finals - but Hingis had a better day on the court and won her 3rd consecutive Australian Open in straight sets. She teamed with Anna Kournikova for the first time in a Grand Slam and the 'spice girls' of tennis had their hands on the winner's trophy at the end of it all.

Martina Hingis with her winning doubles partners at the Australian Open 

SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR!
Things started to go downhill after the victorious start in 1999. It was evident Hingis lacked power in her repertoire and was found wanting when she played the likes of Davenport and the William sisters. French Open 1999 was a disaster when she lost the plot completely after having Steffi Graf's number for two-thirds of the match. She wept in presence of her mother and wished she had not exhausted mentally over a controversial line call during the match. She had not moved on from that disastrous evening at Roland Garros. The scars of French Open was evident as she exited in the first round at the Wimbledon two weeks later; and the loss at the hands of Serena Williams at the US Open made her vulnerable to the game of power tennis. Move over chess-tennis.

BEATEN AT THE LAST HURDLE THRICE
At the start of 2000, Hingis returned to what she calls 'happy slam' and it certainly was a paradise. A defending champion for the past 3 years, she breezed into her fourth consecutive Australian Open finals. The two top ranked players faced each other and Davenport prevailed to dethrone Hingis in straight sets. This was a jolt to Hingis. She once said "If an opponent could blow me off the court, things got dangerous for me" and precisely this was the case whenever she played against Davenport and the William sisters. Very soon, another American would join the list. Hingis lost the doubles finals and for the first time in four years, she left without a title from Australia.

Next year, a resolved Hingis approached her play better. If there was one surface she felt at home, it was the hard courts of the Melbourne Park. En-route to her fifth consecutive finals, she won a marathon battle against Serena Williams and followed by a walk in the park victory over her elder sister, Venus. The finale was Swiss vs. America and this time against the revived Jennifer Capriati. Capriati in search of her first title made a great come back to tennis after having lost her way in the wilderness in the late 90's. She had it easy against Hingis in the finals. 6-4, 6-3 in favour of the American who had to wait a good 11 years for her first Grand Slam title. The year 2001 was the time when Hingis called off her coaching relationship with her mother for a brief time, lost her number one ranking to Capriati and a surgery to her right ankle. She would have another first round exit at the Wimbledon the same year.

After having recovered from the injury, Australian Open 2002 was the right place Hingis hoped to revive her career. She made her sixth consecutive Australian Open finals and it was a re-match from the previous year. Hingis started off well and took the first set and at one stage led 5-1 in the second set. Capriati saved three championship points and forced a tie-breaker. Capriati would save one more championship point before taking the second set. How would Hingis come back from this?
Hingis breaks Capriati's serve and goes 2-1 up in the third set. And that was that for Hingis as Capriati took control of the game there onwards winning five games in a row to win the championship. I remember watching the game with disbelief. Well, that's tennis!

Her sixth consecutive doubles finals at the Australian Open ended on a happy note as she took her fourth Australian Open doubles title. However, this victory was shadowed by the missed chances in the singles finals. Would have we lost Hingis at the age of 22 if she had won that title?  If she had won, would it have kept her in good spirits when she soon underwent a surgery to her left ankle? Tennis was no longer fun for Hingis as she was constantly in pain physically - and mentally with those 'missed opportunities'. The two aspects of her life were out of sync and Hingis, the girl that she was (22) did not want to give up the 'fun' aspect. She chose horse riding, her passion and decided to complete her studies when she announced her first retirement in 2003.

RETURN AS A SHADOW
Martina Hingis winning the mixed doubles title in 2006 with Mahesh Bhupathi 
She was not the same when the audience saw her return to her favourite hunting ground, Melbourne. It was in 2006 and Hingis was just 25! Although she was beaten at the quarterfinals in singles, she did go on to claim her maiden mixed doubles title partnering with Mahesh Bhupathi. For Hingis, it was good to be back, winning just like she did so many times in the past in Australia. In 2007, she lost to Kim Clijsters once again in the round of eight. She retired once again that year and this time she was under the investigation for testing positive for a metabolite substance of cocaine. ITF suspended her for two years later that year.

AND NOW SHE IS BACK AGAIN
As it stands, Martina Hingis in 2015 is focusing on doubles and mixed doubles. After winning the Brisbane Open partnering Sabine Lisicki. A third-round exit in doubles (with Flavia Pennetta) and still in the race with Leander Paes (in semi-finals) for the mixed doubles title. 

NOW AND THEN

How I wish to see her win this trophy one last time!
And memories they are, my time as a teenager when I used to wake up to watch those matches of Hingis at the Australian Open. Call me a victim of the past, I just cannot stop the fact of recollecting Hingis and her many a victories at the Australian Open. For six years from 1997 to 2002 - I watched women's tennis for Hingis and Hingis alone - and if I look at it now, I feel I have lost the 'attachment' which binds a fan crazily, living the emotions of the stars, constantly enthralled by  their play and presence on the court. What happens when it all ends, all of a sudden without any notice? you drag yourself forward and that's all we fans can do. It happened to me when Hingis retired in 2003 and I moved on slowly recollecting those wonder years once in a while.