The year was 1994. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just been established. Groups like Weezer and Green Day dominated the airwaves. The Lion King was released and quickly became the highest grossing animated film of all time.
Oh, and a pair of 14-year-olds, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams began their careers as professional tennis players.
Snuck onto the WTA Tour before the now infamous Jennifer Capriati Age Eligibility Rule was adopted, Hingis and Williams were the sport’s last prepubescent prodigies. In a class all their own, the two young women could not have been more different. Martina, named for compatriot and living legend Navratilova, was the Swiss Miss of the international junior circuit. At 12 years old, she won the French Open girls’ title, defending it a year later and picking up a Wimbledon title along the way. Thrashing opponents years her senior, Hingis played a grown up game within a child’s frame, one that barely scratched 5’7″. Far from a baseline aggressor, Martina preferred to light up the court with cunning variety and flawless shot selection.
Across the Atlantic was Williams, whose father Richard taught her and her sister, Serena (perhaps you’ve heard of her) the sport with thanks to instructional VHS tapes and gang-infested Compton courts. Making school a priority, Richard kept his daughters stateside and entered them solely in USTA events. Venus went undefeated in 63 matches, setting a precedent on a soil she would come to dominate as a senior. Where Martina represented a keen tennis brain and sharp instincts, Venus was raw talent and natural athleticism. Statuesque and 6’1″, she was known for possessing a powerful, well, everything. The young American was breaking records for serve speeds as a teenager, and helped usher in the era of Big Babe Tennis that persists to this day.
In the mid-90s, while Venus broke records with her serve, Martina wrote her name in the record books simply by winning. At 15, she became the youngest-ever Slam champion, taking the 1996 Wimbledon doubles crown with veteran Helena Sukova. A year later, she became the undisputed queen of the tour, falling one match shy of the Grand Slam and began a reign atop the rankings that was largely uninterrupted for the next four years.
Venus reached her first Slam final that same year, falling to Martina in Flushing. At the time, she was no match for her rival’s fully-developed game. But while the American made steady improvements, fine-tuning her power game to match the consistency of those ranked above her, injuries tended to derail her cause, most notably when she succumbed to cramps against Hingis at the same event two years later.
As she was getting her legs massaged by the trainer, Hingis put a towel on the ground so she could lie on the court with her feet up.
It is a scene that is just so Martina. Once quoted as saying she was a “player, not a worker,” the Swiss superstar was a young woman to whom much (perhaps too much) came easily. Her consistent style meant she could compensate for a powderpuff serve, the biggest weakness in her game, relatively speaking. While those around her got fitter and tougher, Martina laid back with her feet up, never losing that signature wry grin. And why shouldn’t she have? She was assured of a Hall of Fame career by the age of 18.
Sure enough, Hingis was elected to the illustrious Interantional Tennis Hall of Fame on Monday, a class of 2013 for which, once again, she seems too young. While her powerful, injury-prone contemporary once looked more likely to be the proverbial flash in the pan, it was Hingis herself who burned out at 22, made a comeback at 25 only to retire for good at 27. Even in her much anticipated mid-2000s comeback, it was apparent that she had failed to make the necessary changes to compete with what had become the game’s best. The comparative lack of success meant, for Hingis, an exponential decrease in desire.
By comparison, Venus has become the posterwoman for overcoming adversity. Over almost two decades on tour, she not only became a great champion (though her head-to-head with Hingis ended at 11-10 in the Swiss’ favor), but also an ambassador for her sport and an inspiration to all who have seen her battle and conquer Sjogren’s Syndrome, a debilitating autoimmune disease, to win a fourth Olympic gold medal last summer in London. Who could have predicted the way this story would end? Certainly no one in the 90s.
Though firmly entrenched among the game’s legends, what would Hingis give to go back?