By Matt Cronin
FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN AT CARLSBAD – There weren’t two more happy people in San Diego County than Martina Hingis and Daniela Hantuchova on Wednesday night after their 6-1 6-1 victory over Julia Goerges and Darija Jurak. After a somewhat nervous start to Hingis’ second comeback, they devastated their foes, who reached the Stanford final last week but looked totally overwhelmed by an in- synch pair who played smarter and much more inventive yellow ball.
At 32, Hingis remains a remarkable volleyer, perhaps the game’s best, and she returns very accurately and with a fair amount of force from her favored backhand side from the ad court, too. She owns topspin and underspin lobs to die for, and always seems to be the right position, because she has a unique (and learned ability) to read the plays. Hantuchova herself brings a lot to the table with the right partner: a big first serve, hard returns off both wings, competent volleys and laser like passing shots when she’s in position.
So now the question is: can they become the world’s top ranked doubles pair? Much of that is on the Swiss, because she has to maintain her commitment to playing a full schedule. She is set to contest four events — Carlsbad, Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open as according to her New Haven is out — and says that if they are successful she will continue on.
“If it’s a complete disaster, I would not want to continue, but I hope that’s not the case,” she said. “I don’t have any expectations, but I wouldn’t put myself in this position if I didn’t feel that I couldn’t compete at this level. In [World] Team Tennis I was good enough, but is it good enough to be able compete at this level? We’ll see.”
Anyone who knows Hingis even a little bit realizes what a dogged competitor she is and how much pride she has. I reminded her yesterday that during her second comeback in 2007, when she was fading away in singles, that she said she wouldn’t never just be a double specialist because she saw herself as a singles competitor.
But that was then and this is now. She’s 32 year old and is in terrific shape, but she’s in doubles shape, or World TeamTennis shape if you like, which means no two-and-a-half hour singles grind fests. She does not want to have train for 6-8 hours per day to get herself back into singles shape and figures she can do half of that and be just fine in doubles. So at least now, a singles comeback is out and although she says it’s not in the back if her mind right now (like a doubles return actually was for the past six years), like her friend and doubles partner at the senior Slams, Lindsay Davenport, I think there still remains a possibility (albeit slight) that she puts herself out there in singles again. If she sees there is a possibility that she can make a breakthrough at the big tournament again (say at Wimbledon which is the least physical of all the majors) she will be very tempted to throw her visor in the ring.
But she won’t this month.
“Not at this point,” she said. “That’s a different world. Even TeamTennis [where she has played singles in shortened format] is brutal. You have to put so much effort into it. Playing tournaments is the easy part, but it’s all the behind the scenes training that people don’t see, the 6-8 hours of training and really the older you get, the harder its gets. I wouldn’t want to come out and play one or two matches and lose in third round. That’s not my type of personality.”
However, when I pressed her on a ‘never again’ her reply was a laughing: “C’mon, leave me alone.”
What Hingis clearly sees is a wide-open doubles field. The Williams sisters only play the Slams and with Venus’ poor health, they might not be doing that much longer. She doesn’t feel like Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci can overpower her and doesn’t fear well-coordinated yet sometimes inconsistent pair of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova. Katerina Srebotnik and Nadia Petrova are as old as she and the 30-year-old Hantuchova are, and even though Russians Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova have improved a great deal as team, they cannot match she and Hantuchova’s talent level.
Simply put, Hingis doesn’t fear any regular doubles player.
“It’s different as when we used to play there were so many more singles girls who played doubles: the [Williams] sisters, me Anna [Kournikova] and Lindsay [Davenport],” she said. “There were like six to eight of the top 10 who played doubles. Now it’s just a few girls in the top 10 who play doubles. There is much more of an opening now.”
Why is Hingis returning? Yes she misses the competition and yes she loves to play. But perhaps there is another reason that is crystal clear but has not been emphasized as much: she felt a little lost during those weeks and months when she wasn’t around the sport. Perhaps one of the reasons is because her personal life has fallen into a bit of chaos, but she and most of the world experience that on an annual basis so that can’t be all of it. It is largely because tennis – not horseback riding, not commentary, not pushing a clothing line – really is her life.
“This is where I feel the most comfortable, feel the most natural and this is what I know the best,” she said.
‘Radical’ changes for Ivanovic
Ana Ivanovic is going through another coaching change and at this point in her career it would be foolish to think that it will make a massive difference. because she been through enough coaches already and whether she will re-enter the top 5 again is now almost entirely on her.
She didn’t not buy that opinion when I tossed her way on Wednesday, and I can see her reasoning why: if you don’t think that your team is going to make a big difference, than why have one at all? To me, the answer to that is so you can form a group around you that supports your needs and follows your lead. In a sense, that is what her situation is anyway.
She split with her coach of two years Nigel Sears after Wimbledon, and won’t have a full time coach for the rest of this summer. She is currently traveling with her hitting partner, Nemanja Konitc (whom apparently does have some input) a fitness coach, Zlatko Novovic, and a physio, Branko Penic. She will also work with adidas Player Development coaches Sven Groeneveld (who coached her to the 2008 Roland Garros crown) and Darren Cahill when they are available, which in the Aussie case isn’t going to be that much through the US Open due to his TV obligations.
“That was big change, but I really felt like I needed it because it was good, but I was stuck in the same place and I really needed to make a transition and I needed to hear a fresh voice,” Ivanovic told me. “It was a big change and tough decision but it came both ways.”
Ivanovic is an intelligent woman who spends a lot of times thinking, but she is also very emotional and at times seems to make decisions based on her gut more than her head. Sears is very competent coach and did so some good work with her but in reality, from July 2011 to July 2013, she only improved one ranking place from No. 18 and to No. 17. There were periods during the past two years when she performed much better than she did from mid 2009 to mid 2011, but she has not been a huge factor at the Slam or Premiers on a consistent basis and that’s where she wants to be. She’ll take half the blame for that or perhaps more, but she is right in indicating that it can’t all be laid at her feet if she was trusting his advice.
“It’s always two ways,” she said. “You have your opinions and the other person his own and he wanted to get the best out of me and I’m sure it was frustrating for him that he couldn’t get me to do the things that he wanted. But sometimes you need a fresh voice and you need someone to influence you better. It was a mutual agreement.”
My suspicion was that after she played such a shockingly bad match in loss to Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon that she hit a tipping point. I also thought that after she pushed Maria Sharapova hard twice in RG warm-ups that she should have been sorely disappointed with her performance in her loss to Agnieszka Radwanska at Roland Garros. But she says that wasn’t the case.
“Its not a match in particular,” she said. “I was disappointed in the loss at Wimbledon, but it wasn’t that, it was over period of time and there were a lot of the same things and repetitions and it was good week, bad week and not getting me to where I wanted to go I felt like I needed to do something radical.”
The 25 year old’s goal is to be a super elite player again and while she has shown flashes of that since her great 2008, she has not been that competitor consistently. That really frustrated her and combine that with some undisclosed personal problems, after Wimbledon, she took 10 days off of fitness and tennis and went to Spain to be with her family where she hung out with her brother, cooked with her mother and laid by the pool and on the beach.
Now she’s in Carlsbad, back to the drawing board trying to find a way down the road to greatness, which of late has been full of potholes.
“It’s keeping the hard work and working on the confidence and I feel my game has been there, but the confidence hasn’t and physical and mental level hasn’t been there the whole match,” said Ivanovic, who did look impressive in upsetting defending champion Dominica Cibulkova 4-6 6-3 6-2 in the first round. “Getting all that in balance and to keep the comfort level is going to make a big difference.”
But here’s her dilemma and it’s one that most players face: how to keep improving and working the right way with long term goals in mind, while at the same time not getting frustrated with negative results.
“It’s tough, she said. “It’s about finding what works for you.”