Martina Hingis Playing For A Lot More Than 'Funsies' At US Open
When Swiss tennis player Martina Hingis took to the practice courts at the US Open last week with her doubles partner, Sania Mirza of India, she was far from a stranger to it all: the oppressive heat, the pressure of looming competition, cameras and fans ogling every move she made on thevcourt and off.
Widely regarded as one of the best players to pick up a racket, Hingis spent more than 200 weeks as the No. 1 player in the world. She has won five Grand Slam singles titles and two years ago was elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
But as she darted around the court in a white visor and ponytail, she may have missed the chatter among spectators about her age -- 34.
"She's what, like 50?" one man offered.
"This must be for funsies," another replied.
"She's still playing? No kidding."
"Martina? Wow, she's old."
The comments, in Hingis' case, may be misguided. In her second act as a doubles player, Hingis and Mirza are the top seeds at the US Open, having won the women's doubles title at Wimbledon and at the 2015 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. With Leander Paes, also of India, Hingis is part of the fourth-seeded mixed doubles team as well.
"It's less stressful," Hingis said of her current career as a doubles player, shrugging off any criticism of age as a concern. "I enjoy every moment of it."
Hingis is one year older than Serena Williams, the No. 1 seed in women's singles at the US Open vying for her record 22nd Grand Slam and fourth Grand Slam title this year. And she's a few months younger than Williams' opponent in the quarterfinals: 23rd-seeded Venus Williams, who is going for her eighth Grand Slam singles title and first since 2008.
In addition to her singles career, Hingis has won 10 Grand Slam women's doubles titles and three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, as well.
Part of the misunderstanding among fans concerning Hingis' age is that many of her career highlights came when she was exceptionally young, even by tennis standards. Hingis went pro at 14 and finished her season ranked in the top 100. When she won the 1996 women's doubles title at Wimbledon with Helena Sukova at age 15, she was the youngest Grand Slam champion of the Open era. In 1997, when she became the No. 1 woman in the world, she was the youngest ever to do so
"It's nice to come back to a tournament when you've done well in the past and perform at a really high level," Hingis said.
Across sports, including tennis, women are enjoying longer careers. The average age of WTA players competing at Grand Slams has increased from 22.4 in 1984 to 25.3 in 2015 -- nearly three years older -- according to analysis from the RAND Corporation.
During the same time, the same three-year age increase was seen in the men's tour, according to RAND. Forty of the men participating in this year's US Open are 30 or older, an age once considered to be rickety for tennis players, compared with 10 men who were 30 or older at the US Open 20 years ago, according to the ATP.
"I think we have the foundation," Hingis said. "In our generation, we definitely spent hours and hours on the court that no on can take away from us. I think this shows that at the end of the day, that we have the skills and now we can come back to them and produce this kind of tennis."
Fellow teenage prodigy Serena Williams has cited her age as an asset in this year's US Open. She joked last week that she was a "vintage player from Lord knows what decade" and that she was "old-school."
"I think being experienced has really helped me a lot," Williams said. "It helped me get through a lot of matches. It's helped me overcome a lot of things."
Stephanie Kovalchik, a statistician at the RAND Corporation and tennis blogger at on-the-t.com said there's "no single factor" to explain the uptick in age, but she does think that advances in racket and string technology that help players hit with greater power have helped. She also attributes some of the shift to the emergence of the baseline era in tennis, which means more points played at the baseline, longer rallies and longer matches. "This makes endurance and fitness major advantages to winning Grand Slam titles," she said.
While winning any Grand Slam title is difficult, playing doubles is considered to be inherently less trying, as players are sharing the court. Tennis had taken its toll on Hingis, and in 2003, at 22, Hingis said she was retiring, citing her injuries. After that, she flirted with a comeback and retired a second time in 2007.
Hingis' career faced challenges off the court, too. In 2007, she announced she was under investigation for testing positive for a metabolite of cocaine. She had appealed the test result, as the level her sample contained was below the threshold for many workplace-testing programs, and, Hingis said, likely the result of contamination rather than intentional ingestion. She received a two-year ban, nonetheless.
Regardless of any ups or downs, Hingis still has drawn sizeable crowds here. Ironically, as she packed out one of the side courts with Mirza, Richard Gasquet was winning his match on the Grandstand simultaneously. In 2009, Gasquet, of France, was cleared to return to competitive tennis after he had tested positive for cocaine and claimed that the cocaine had entered his system after he kissed a woman in a nightclub.
It's less stressful. I enjoy every moment of it.Martina Hingis
Hingis and Mirza are into the quarterfinals and have dropped just eight games in their first three matches.
"She's won at this level many times before," Mirza said. "Even though it was a long time ago, I think it's important to know how to win. Because a lot of the time, it comes down to nerves."
Their playing styles complement each other, Mirza said. Hingis is swift and nimble at the net, Mirza strong and forceful in the back of the court. While many players purport to "have fun" when they're on court, few seem to smile as much as Mirza and Hingis under pressure, even when they miss a shot.
Mirza said that their respective bouts with injuries have helped create their sense of gratitude in their doubles game.
"We're trying to enjoy the moment," Mirza said. "I've come back from a couple of terrible injuries where I thought my career was over. Her career was over a couple of times, and she came back. I think we both appreciate being on the court. Sure, we're enjoying it, but we're doing everything we can to win. Just because we're smiling doesn't mean we're joking. It's not a sense of humor, it's more about being happy to be on the court and competing."
Hingis, still seeking two more Grand Slam titles, is scheduled to play in the mixed doubles quarterfinals with Leander Paes on Monday.
"It was a dream for me to be able to do it," Hingis said of returning to tennis. "But when it's actually happening, now it's a dream come true."