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Martina Hingis: The two sides of a tennis player

The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

Martina Hingis’ induction into the 2013 class of the International Tennis Hall of Fame has surely raised a lot of eyebrows along with the token amount of appreciation from all quarters. Not because of her tennis playing skills, for sure, but because of the dubious accolades she managed to garner during her playing time.

The last true-blue female athlete to dominate the sport with a tactical style of play before the power-hitters arrived on the scene, it wasn’t always her game that put Hingis under the spotlight. Her barbs at her rivals, the rudeness that she never hid (at times even dishing it out to some of her doubles’ partners) and her conceit that prevented her from acknowledging others’ superiority over her, were, instead the talking points in her career. The allegations of racism that made waves following Caroline Wozniacki’s impression of Serena Williams had nothing on the verbal high-handedness that Hingis could come up with. Hingis’ sharp tongue followed her everywhere she went, gaining more and more notoriety along with the rise of her professional reputation.

Her immense fan-following aside, Hingis’ attitude didn’t really endear her to her peers or rivals, or even to critics who commented about her snootiness and her aloofness at various intervals during her professional career-span. The youngest player to achieve several records Hingis might have been, but none of her critics discounted her age when it came to pinpointing her faults. Regarding her peers, her constant snubbing of professional rivalries under the guise of being matter-of-fact further distanced her from them, an irony considering that Hingis was one of the best doubles players of her time, as she even went on to complete the Grand Slam in doubles with players many of which she complained about rather publicly.

This turbulence shrouding Hingis, the tennis persona, was yet again brought to light during the 1999 French Open finals. The match not only went down in the pages of history books as one of the greatest tennis matches to be ever played, but also added even more texture to Hingis’ claims to infamy. As an 18-year old playing against veteran Steffi Graf, Hingis added the stigma of gamesmanship to her fragile and precarious repute. Innumerable arguments with the chair umpire, a few underhanded tactics – some, literal – and temper tantrums at the end of the match saw her lose favour with the assembled crowd, who were already baying for her defeat with deafening fervour.

However, even in spite of the fact that Hingis wasn’t one of those well-loved and admired-from-all-quarters players, what made her unique was the fact that she stuck by her statements. At no point of time did Hingis ever contradict her words or even attempt to do so, which made her an even bigger cynosure. Surrounded by players who spend their professional lives with a glaring display of hypocrisy, Hingis’ bluntness made for a refreshing change, though it may not have been pleasant.

In her own way, Hingis carried herself with a prestige that was unshakeable and more importantly, decidedly not placatory. Hingis’ comport was tested even more during 2007, when she tested positive for substance abuse. In her second outing into the professional realm, coming after a long hiatus – forced because of injury – and cast before the public eye in an almost demeaning manner, Hingis decided to retire from the sport for good. Her decision to step aside, believing her conscience, rather than contest the charges and continue a long, drawn-out battle once again emphasised her ability to carry on with her life on her terms rather than accept or feebly challenge what was thrust before her.

Five singles Grand Slam titles, nine doubles Grand Slam titles and a slew of records tying her with some of the best talents of the sport – these aren’t merely narratable statistics; these are achievements upon which Hingis’ reputation has been vouched, now even more strongly than before. The not-so shiny on-and-off court behaviour somehow just bronzes this sheen. After all, no one is perfect, not even the maverick Swiss Miss.

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