The off-season. A time for reflection, retrospectives, and misty, water-colored memories. Barring a rare “This Day in Tennis History” feature, the time between last season and next was once the only appropriate time for hardcore reminiscing.
Along came the Internet.
Social media maven Stephanie Neppl (@StephintheUS) has taken to YouTube, giving the tennis world a nuclear blast from the past thanks to her extensive VHS collection. The first batch of clips – ranging from the late 90s into the early 00s – has done much to fill in a certain gap in the tennis timeline, a grey area between older, more obvious nostalgia, and the present day, where critical moments might be found online before a match has finished.
It was a transitional time for tennis, as well. A look at where the women’s game was in 2001 reveals an unrecognizable landscape, but one that was changing with each passing week. Players were positioned in number only, and power was quickly gaining currency over precision.
The four year reign of then-No. 1 Martina Hingis was ostensibly untroubled; consistency and a clean bill of health allowed her to remain on top of the world, though the ground was shifting beneath her. She began the year with back-to-back wins over the Williams sisters in Australia, only to be blunted by one Big Babe too many in the final. Slamless since 1999, the Swiss Miss stood by as less polished peers captured more prestigious trophies.
And yet, the terse 20-year-old retained what Mary Carillo called her “happy arrogance.” She believed she was the best in the world, and with five major titles to the Williamses combined three, doing just enough to stay at the top seemed almost strategic as she looked to outlast her rivals on court and in career.
For Hingis, it was still 1997. The year in which she became the youngest, the craftiest, the cleverest among a field comprised of “old and slow” had never ended. It was still 1998, when she haughtily stomped down the streets of Paris en route to a rare doubles Grand Slam.
It was still 1999, when she dismissively answered coach Richard Williams’ prediction that his daughters would meet in the final, finding an even match in a young Serena before a détente over t-shirts.
But the 90s are over.
Fondly as Buzzfeed recalls them now, they are never coming back.
Looking back, it would appear Martina never got the memo. She was so certain Venus and Serena were passing fads, she told Time Magazine:
“Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have had a lot of advantages because they can always say, ‘It’s racism.’ They can always come back and say, ‘Because we are this color, things happen.'”
Indefensible today, it was an uncomfortable sentiment echoed by her namesake, Martina Navratilova:
“I think they’ve been treated with kid gloves…People have been afraid to criticize them because they don’t want to be called racist.”
Ever obstinate, Hingis entered the US Open as top seed for the fifth and final time. Cracks in her once impenetrable aura were visible for all but one to see. A second opening round loss at Wimbledon preceded back-to-back defeats to Monica Seles, the Big Babe against whom she had been the most ruthlessly dominant. She who once strolled through opening rounds like they were the Champs-Élysées suddenly struggled past unlikely, albeit familiar, nemeses in Iva Majoli and Jelena Dokic.
In the same half of the draw, Serena Williams was tired of being No. 10, and over the digs from her rival.
“All I know is that I get endorsements because I win and I work hard. I go out there with a good attitude and I smile.”
If she wanted an apology, she would have to find one on the court. Unapologetic in her self-described “political incorrectness,” Hingis was equally anticipating a rematch of their Down Under epic. Down a double break in the final set, Hingis had outfoxed Williams to take the quarterfinal 8-6 in the third.
Where the Swiss Miss manual was on track to print – outlast, outwit, outhit – the No. 1 did not play that afternoon’s semifinal without a plan. Looking to take the angles away from the athletic American, she persisted in pressing the ball down the middle.
Generating one’s own pace is no easy ask, but for the fast-rising Williams, it was hardly a challenge in blustery conditions. Hingis’s efforts, conversely, depended on depth. As her under-ranked opponent pressed forward, she fell back, her shots falling shorter and shorter. It was over in 51 minutes, a hair longer than that 8-6 set played months earlier.
Rose-colored glasses are an undeniable prerequisite for nostalgic engagement. Isolated images on the communal big screen TV can even make that prescription all the more palatable. Thanks to online archivers like Ms. Neppl, we come away with the memories and our own set of nostalgia goggles, similar to the ones taken from the face of Martina Hingis in 2001.