"January 29, 2012
To Prodigy and Retiree (Twice), Hingis Adds Coach
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
MELBOURNE — Show Court 3 was not far from empty on Friday as Yulia Putintseva and Eugenie Bouchard played in the full heat of a Melbourne summer in the semifinals of the Australian Open girls tournament.
In the third row of the stands, under a broad-brimmed straw hat and without the benefit of a racket, Martina Hingis put both clenched fists together and imitated the backhand stroke that she wished she had just seen from Putintseva.
Hingis, now 31, did not see many empty seats during her playing career. The ultimate tennis prodigy, she turned pro at 14 after dominating her elders as a junior and won her first major title at age 16 at the Australian Open, becoming the youngest Grand Slam singles champion in the 20th century.
Two months later, she was the youngest No. 1 in tennis history and went on to reach the final of the French Open and win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — all before she turned 17.
Times, physical demands and training methods have changed. Putintseva — a stocky, deeply tanned Russian who likes to smash rackets as well as forehands — turned 17 earlier this month and is still working and storming her way through the juniors. She lost in the final here to the American Taylor Townsend (and did not go quietly).
“I enjoy watching the girls, the younger ones,” Hingis said. “It’s not always the easiest; I know how I was at 17 or 18. Sometimes I watch the old videos and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ you know? I wasn’t always the best listener with my mom.”
Hingis, long coached by her mother, Melanie Molitor, is now the one trying to make her case to teenagers. She is working as a coaching consultant with Putintseva and four other young women in France. All have their personal coaches and all are based at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy west of Paris in the suburb of Thiverval-Grignon. The group includes two Russians, including the former U.S. Open junior champion Daria Gavrilova, an American, a Briton and a French player.
“It’s good because I was multicultural, too, so that helps,” said Hingis, who is Swiss but was born in Kosice in what is now Slovakia.
Hingis, who married Thibault Hutin of France in December 2010, was the one who initiated the coaching job: approaching the academy’s founder, Patrick Mouratoglou, at the U.S. Open last year.
“I think now I’m ready to do it,” Hingis said. “Before I was more thinking about maybe playing or doing this and that, and now I’m ready more to give, and I love working with the kids, too. I say kids, but I should say young women. They are making their own stand on the tour, playing the juniors and getting into the seniors. I think it’s a very interesting age.”
Mouratoglou, a Frenchman, has made a habit of hiring star coaches, including Peter Lundgren and Tony Roche, both of whom once worked with Roger Federer and both of whom are no longer affiliated with the academy. But Mouratoglou said he was not seeking to bolster public relations by bringing Hingis on board but rather connecting with a kindred tennis spirit.
“I understand the question, and why you pose it,” Mouratoglou said. “Martina is the one who came and asked me, so it wasn’t me thinking, ‘Hey, I’ll get someone famous to come coach.’ I always have a goal in my head when I do things. It’s better that way, and when I brought in Tony Roche and Peter Lundgren — who aren’t there anymore, by the way — I had in mind to attract certain players, and I needed the coaches who would correspond to them. Since then, my thinking has evolved, and I don’t want to take that approach anymore.”
“Martina has a conception of tennis that is very close to my own. I have always worked with players to get them inside the court and take the ball early. I think it’s the game of the future. Not necessarily coming to net, if they come to net all the better, but the game of the future is to be able to take time away from the opponent, to cut the trajectories off.
“It’s what Roger Federer does very well and what Novak Djokovic does very, very well, but 90 percent of the other players are not doing it. But Martina always did this. It’s the way she was taught, the way she learned to play the game.”
Both Putintseva and Gavrilova said in interviews that they had been encouraged by Hingis to expand their range since she began training with them late last year. “The trainings with her are really intense,” Gavrilova said. “And we always do something different and are working on many things, and she’s really playing inside the court, so that’s what she wants me to improve.”
Hingis, in her first major tournament in this role, is one of two former world No. 1’s to join the coaching ranks this season. But unlike Ivan Lendl, now 51 and working with Andy Murray, Hingis is still of an age to be competing at this level. One of her primary rivals, Serena Williams, remains a main contender at age 30, and Venus Williams, 31, plans to return to competition this week for the Fed Cup. Kim Clijsters, who will turn 29 this year, just reached the semifinals here.
“They have a different game; they have serves; they have big first shots,” Hingis said. “I was a different player.”
She said she was not surprised that Serena Williams, in particular, has endured. “The willpower of Serena, nobody can beat that,” she said. “There has not been another player who has the same hunger.”
Hingis last played on tour more than four years ago after retiring (for the second time) in November 2007 after testing positive for cocaine metabolite at Wimbledon that year. It was a trace amount. Hingis declared that she had not ingested cocaine wittingly, declined to engage in an expensive, extended appeal process and chose to retire instead — something she said she was already considering. She was later given a two-year ban that restricted her formal access to tournament sites.
“It wasn’t the greatest way to stop, that’s for sure,” she said.
In a later case, the French player Richard Gasquet, who tested positive for a trace amount of cocaine, had his suspension cut from two years to two and a half months after the International Tennis Federation ruled on appeal that he had inadvertently ingested the substance.
“They made an example, I guess,” said Hingis, referring to her case. “I just look into the future. You can’t look back. Two years, they passed away, and now the last two years have been great, being back in business and in tennis. This has always been my home.”
I guess, Lendl is bring out the retirees back into the game!