ALEXANDRA WILLIS is the Deputy Editor of ACE Tennis Magazine, and alongside mag work and an affair with social media, has the dubious honour of following British players to Grand Slam qualifying from time to time as part of her professional duties. If you happen to bump into her court-side, she’ll probably tell you that she went to Oxford (and not just shopping).
The return of two familiar faces to the SW19 greensward this year caused quite a stir, but as they explained when we met ahead of their return, they’re not quite back for good…
By Alexandra Willis
16 August 2010
Comebacks, it would seem, are all the rage. Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin – all of them have relaced their trainers, repolished their rackets, and re-embarked on the professional Tour after time away, with extraordinary results. Davenport won three titles back-to-back, Clijsters won the US Open and three more titles since, and Henin reached the Australian Open final. And of course, when one player comes back, and does so with success, the rumour mill goes into overdrive about who might be next to rejoin the fray.
And so it was that on a balmy summer’s evening at the 2010 Championships at Wimbledon, the sun starting to dip over St Mary’s Church and the stewards gently ushering fans out of the grounds with a cheery ‘have a nice day’, there was one court that remained full to the brim. Every seat in the press enclosure was occupied for the first time in the tournament, and that was nothing on the photographers’ benches, bursting at the seams with lenses all pointing in one direction. It was not for Roger Federer, or Rafael Nadal. It was just the women’s invitational doubles. And it was not towards the doubles pairing of Anne Hobbs and Samantha Smith. No, the Spice Girls were back, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, grinning and laughing as if they’d never been away.
“You know somebody’s your friend when you can just pick up where you left off; you don’t have to talk to them every day,” chirps Blonde-plaited Spice, Kournikova, grinning from ear to ear at the success of a plan cooked up by them both when discussing summer plans from opposite sides of the pond. “It’s like it was 10 years ago!” smiles Brunette Spice, Hingis.
Separated by just eight months in age, two of the most famous names in the game have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both were drilled on the tennis court from the time they could walk, both broke through in their teens, and both retired with career-threatening injuries while still in their prime. And, of course, there was their doubles partnership, two Grand Slam titles together at the 1999 and 2002 Australian Opens. “I think I asked you to play,” giggles Kournikova, teeing off 10 to the dozen in a leafy part of Wimbledon village the week before their return to SW19. “Martina was already No.1 in the world in singles and doubles and had won a bunch of tournaments, so it must have been me that asked her!” “No,” replies Hingis, struggling to make herself heard over her partner’s exuberant chatter. “It was one of the best parts of my career when we teamed up. You have a partner and also a friend at the same time; you’re not alone on the court. We would joke around a bit, but be serious when we needed to be.”
Ushered out of the schoolroom and onto the tennis court, Hingis and Kournikova became the archetypal wunderkinds, teen sensations taking on the older generation with fire in their bellies and not a single ounce of fear. “On the way up it always seems to be easier because you have nothing to lose against the top players,” remembers Hingis. “When I was 14 I was beaten by Mary Pierce 6-0, 6-0, and I was like, “Ok, there is probably some room for improvement”! I wasn’t tired, or traumatised, I learnt from it. I was pretty much full time on the tour at 15. But there are rules and restrictions now, which I don’t personally agree with. You learn more when you’re 15 than when you’re 18, and young players don’t get a chance to learn.”
“It’s too strict, there needs to be a balance,” chips in Kournikova, adjusting her trademark visor. “It’s once you have to come back to those events that you have won, and you have to prove it all over again, that’s the hardest situation to be in,” muses Martina. “For both of us, we were very young when we got to the top; I didn’t have the fear. The fear came later, my comeback, I was afraid of the expectation, and I put more pressure on myself.”
“I think it really helped us that we were close in age, and we could go through things together,” Kournikova continues at a rate of knots. “Sometimes I didn’t know how to deal with the fame, certain matches, certain things. Martina would help me, and I’d help her. We knew we could rely on each other and relate to each other in a lot of things.”
“We understood each other very well, we were different, but similar. We complemented each other, I think,” rounds off Hingis.
Of course, the trouble with having close friends on the Tour, doubles partner or not, sooner or later you end up having to play each other. Hingis and Kournikova met 12 times during their career, the Russian winning just one of those encounters, but they insist it didn’t affect their friendship. “It was nice when we played. You have the partnership and then you play each other. If you make a big deal of it you’re in trouble,” says Hingis. “There’s always going to be tension when there’s 120 girls in one locker room who have to play each other. It’s completely normal, just like in any office building,” chips in Kournikova. ‘But when you are really good friends, and we’ve known each other since juniors, you understand what’s on the court and what’s off.”
So what do the duo think of the current generation? “They’re triple the size and strong,” says Kournikova. “We look like tiny little girls! The game has definitely changed.” “We just had a different style,” muses Hingis.” “Everyone had their own style. That made it unique. I think they just don’t teach it anymore.” Kournikova agrees. “Now it’s about the power. I think it’s very, very individual. It depends on your development, how fast you can develop your skills, how fast you mature in your head. It depends on the player, it depends on the game, it depends on what country you’re from. There are a bunch of factors that affect what time you’ll peak. Jana Novotna won her first Grand Slam…”, “…at 30!’ interjects Hingis. ‘And Francesca Schiavone won hers two weeks ago. She was on the Tour when I was on the Tour,’ reminisces the Russian. ‘I played her in the French Open quarters in 2001,’ adds the Swiss.
But, contrary to message boards all over the internet, neither Hingis nor Kournikova, both younger than this year’s French Open champion Schiavone, will be rejoining the ranks of the professional tennis player. ‘I would be wrong if I said I hadn’t thought about it,’ says Hingis. ‘It’s normal and only natural that when you see another player coming back, you think about it. But I’ve already done my comeback. I was very happy with it. I lived through all the emotions. Now it’s different. I think I’ve played enough tennis in my life. Doubles is a different story, but not full time. If I could play in my back yard, maybe.’
Kournikova folllows suit. ‘For me it would be impossible. If I had to return, I would have to live in the trainer’s room for three hours every day. I have five different things wrong with my back, from two herniated discs to the four cracks that I have. The right side is smaller than the left side.’ ‘I don’t want to hear it,’ says Hingis, grimacing.
Ah yes, injuries. While Kournikova was plagued by back troubles, for Hingis it was ankles and feet. ‘People don’t realise how strenuous tennis is on your body, and how hard you have to prepare to be on the court,’ the Russian says adamantly. ‘You’re not just working out by being on the court, you have to put in a lot of hours off the court to get ready for tennis. It’s one of those sports that is full body, you have high impact on every single joint, you use everything, it’s always stop and go. It’s like running sprints! And we’ve been putting all our bodies through 15 years of that for six to eight hours a day!’
Hingis nods. ‘When you get older, you have different priorities, lifestyle changes,’ she says.
Instead, both players are blissfully settled in a second career, one that for Kournikova involves fitness and charity work, and for Hingis, horse riding and the odd exhibition. Not that they didn’t enjoy their return to the spotlight. When the moderator finally called game, set and match on their post-match press conference, Kournikova protested, ‘Really, that’s it? Suddenly when I’m older, I’m enjoying the press conferences. I thought we were just getting started.’
Hingis just laughed.
Photography by Hannah Edwards
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