With her finesse game, her clever strategy, her petulant tantrums, and her teenage success, Martina Hingis was always popular with the fans. Last weekend the fans had a chance to see her playing top-level tennis once again.
It was in the western Polish town of Zielona Gora, for Switzerland’s Fed Cup tie against Poland.
Despite being a five-time Grand Slam champion, the 34-year-old raised a few eyebrows when she was selected for the squad. The last time she competed in the international team competition was all the way back in 1998.
But just look at her recent doubles form on the WTA Tour. Teaming with a selection of partners, she has enjoyed a great year so far, winning in Brisbane, Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston. The last three triumphs were alongside India’s Sania Mirza.
In fact it made sense for the Swiss captain Heinz Gunthardt to pick her as one half of his Fed Cup doubles team. What he hadn’t banked on, however, was an injury crisis among his singles players.
The Swiss No.2, Belinda Bencic chose not to play, and the No.3 and No.4 Stefanie Voegele and Romina Oprandi were sidelined with injury.
“We had to improvise,” Gunthardt admitted.
So an ageing Hingis steps up to the mark. Let’s be honest, that’s a bit like Lindsay Davenport replacing Serena Williams in the USA team. Or Tim Henman dusting off his rackets for the Brits.
At her age, Hingis should be skippering the Fed Cup team, not slugging out singles matches for it.
Sure enough, she got battered 6-4, 6-0 in the first rubber, by Agnieszka Radwanska but, in the second, she was a set and 5-2 up against Radwanska’s younger sister Urszula (world No.114), before eventually crumbling.
Fortunately her teammates won the other three rubbers to clinch the tie 3-2 – not an easy task away to Poland.
The get-out-of-jail situation was not lost on Hingis who said afterwards:
“We have the A team. We have the B team. We almost arrived with the C team. And we ended up winning against Poland here.
“The best option was, ‘Can you play singles, please?’ I was like, ‘Wow! Okay, I didn't really expect this.’
“I tried my best. I think we made the max of our potential in this situation. We have to be realistic. I am 34-years-old and it’s not like I am 17-years-old. I was not going to be the one for the team who could have saved it.”
It was a massive risk. Should the Swiss captain have picked someone else? With Bencic, Voegele and Oprandi out of the picture, he could have selected Viktorija Golubic for singles as well as doubles. After all, her singles ranking is 241 in the world – but she’s competing below main tour level in that code.
No, Gunthardt was definitely right to call on Hingis. A player of her fame and stature gave a talismanic kick to the team. It wouldn’t have been the same if Golubic had stepped up for the singles.
And he knew Hingis would pull out all the stops, especially since she seems to be looking for a spot in the Switzerland doubles team at next year’s Olympic Games. (Competing in Fed Cup is a prerequisite for that.)
For the deciding doubles rubber, she even took on a vice-captain role, coaching from the sidelines. “To help give confidence,” she said.
And it worked. Switzerland are now back in Fed Cup’s elite World Group next year.
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