Most people will tell you that when it come to life and its pleasures and rewards, "You can't have it all. . ."
Martina Hingis, who will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this weekend, is one of those fortunate few who might be tempted to fire back, "Says who?"
Hingis is just 32 and, if her physical condition at this year's French Open was any measure, is still more than good enough to have a career as a top 20 WTA player. But I guess coming back from retirement once, as Hingis did in 2006 after a four-year hiatus that started when she was just 22, is a little too much to expect.
It's still a pity she's not with us on a more regular basis anymore, because she was something so many players in recent years have not been. Fun.
Sassy, saucy, in-and-out of trouble, never one to shy from controversy, the spirited Hingis made it a point to live life to its fullest. And she did it despite expectations that she was destined to become the ultimate one-dimensional tennis monster created by an obsessive, ambitious Centre Court mother, Melanie Molitor. Credit Molitor for being a great parent as well as a great coach. She left her prodigy daughter enough slack in the rope to escape that fate.
Molitor named her daughter after that other Martina, Navratilova. And while Molitor established those smooth, elegant Hingis groundstrokes, the player's most potent gifts were not the kind that anyone can teach -- they were innate gifts. Hingis is still the model "creative" player of our time, and few pros as inventive as Hingis had anything like the competitive gusto and plain old guts that played just as large a role in Hingis' success as her natural feeling for the game.
Just 5-foot-7, Hingis won her first major title (Wimbledon doubles) in 1996 at 15 years and nine months, making her the youngest player ever to win a Grand Slam open event. She won her first Grand Slam singles title just a few months later at the 1997 Australian Open. Before the year was out, she would be the undisputed world No. 1.
Looking back on it now, and taking into account the nature of the game these days and age at which players are winning majors, Hingis seems almost like an improbable relic -- a player not just from another era, but perhaps another planet.
Hingis spent 209 weeks at No. 1 on the computer (fourth best all time), won five Grand Slam singles titles (and played a whopping 14 finals) and 10 major doubles titles -- one mixed and nine women's doubles. She completed a doubles calendar-year Grand Slam in 1998, and she was done with all that heavy lifting by the end of 2002, at the still tender age of 22. She retired in 2003, citing chronic ligament problems in both her ankles.
In 2006, Hingis made a comeback and rocketed all the way to No. 6 in the world, with three singles titles and her last win at a major, the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open (w/ Mahesh Bhupathi). But in July of the following year, Hingis tested positive for cocaine while competing at Wimbledon. She denied using the drug, but chose to retire in November rather than fight the charges and contest the automatic suspension.
Although no one foresaw this ending -- Hingis certainly never appeared to have a "drug problem" -- it was hardly surprising. For right from the start of her career, Hingis was bent on pursuing all the pleasures and rewards life had to offer, and that line between acceptable and illicit can be a fine one. A serial dater, she had flings with a number of ATP players, pursued her love of horses and equestrian activities and engaged in cat fights with (among others) her "frenemy" and fellow diva, Anna Kournikova. Hingis was spectacularly talented, rich, and young. What filters she had were different from those who could not afford to be so imperious.
Ironically, Hingis may be best remembered for a match she didn't win -- the French Open final of 1997 against Croatia's Eva Majoli.
That year, Hingis would win the other three Grand Slam events, utterly dominating the WTA Tour. Majoli hadn't been anywhere near a final before, and she wouldn't get near one again. That match, apart from denying Hingis the potential glory of a calendar-year Grand Slam (something only three other women have accomplished), showed us how petulant she could be, and -- on rarer occasions -- how self-sabotaging.
Yet Hingis never dwelled upon or obsessed over that loss. She moved on, always on the lookout for something new and interesting, doing what so few prisoner's to the game can claim. She lived tennis to its fullest, on her terms, and her spirit and spunk didn't keep her from becoming an iconic figure in tennis history.