The 1990 was a period where teenagers blazed a trail in women’s tennis with the likes of Venus and Serena Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati putting in scintillating performances even before they turned 20.
But while most of these stars took some time to settle down and show consistency after their initial promise, a Swiss miss with a charming grin stormed her way into the top echelons of world tennis even before she turned 16.
Having won the junior French Open at the age of 12, Martina Hingis turned professional just two weeks after turning 14 in October 1994. She won her first WTA title in Germany in 1996 before becoming the youngest Grand Slam champion of all time when she won the Wimbledon doubles crown with Helena Sukova at 15 years and nine months.
She staked her claim for a possible Grand Slam singles title as well, reaching the Australian Open quarter-finals and the US Open semis in the same year. But it was the next year, in 1997, that she went on to create history.
Hingis began the year by clinching the Sydney Open title two weeks before the Australian Open, where she was seeded fourth. Defending champion Monica Seles had pulled out of the tournament and with Steffi Graf not at her best, the Czech-born player knew that she could go all the way if she kept her cool and worked on her consistency.
She rarely broke sweat till the quarter-finals with just one set against Ruxandra Dragomir in the fourth round going till the tiebreaker.
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Top seed Graf, second seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and third seed Conchita Martinez had been knocked out by that stage and Hingis had a shot at becoming the youngest singles Grand Slam champion in Melbourne.
She brushed aside Irina Spirlea and USA’s Mary Joe Fernandes in straight sets to reach her first singles Grand Slam final. From the top half, Mary Pierce had become the first unseeded player since 1978 to make this far in the Australian Open and had a 3-0 head-to-head record against the Swiss youngster.
More importantly the Frenchwoman, who had won the Australian Open in 1995, had won three of the previous six sets against Hingis 6-0. Hence it would have been natural for the fourth seed to be a little tentative going into her first Major final.
But Hingis flipped the script by taking control of the match after saving three break points in the opening game. In fact, she could have registered her first bagel against the Frenchwoman but lost her concentration a bit after opening up a 5-0 lead and dropped two games.
The second set became equally one-sided once a nervous Pierce double-faulted under pressure in the sixth game to hand the advantage to Hingis at 4-2. The Swiss raced through the next two games to be crowned the youngest Grand Slam singles champion and 16 years and three months, a record that still stands.
Hingis also went on to become the first player since Martina Navratilova in 1985 to win the singles and doubles title (with Natasha Zvereva) at the same edition of the Australian Open.
After the match, Pierce admitted that she was surprised with the composure of her young opponent in the final. “It’s probably human to get a little bit nervous, but I don’t know if she did or not; it doesn’t seem like very much gets to her,’’ she had said.
The title triumph kickstarted a run which saw her become the youngest World No 1 in March 1997, win 12 titles including the Wimbledon and US Open that year. She dropped just one set in the three Majors she won and could have emulated Graf’s 1988 feat of winning all the four titles in the same calendar year had she not lost the French Open final to Iva Majoli, which was the Croatian’s only Slam title.
Hingis went on to reach five consecutive Australian Open finals, completing a hat-trick of titles in 1999, stayed at the world ranking summit for 209 weeks before ligament injuries to both her ankles slowed her down. She announced her retirement at the age of 22 with 40 singles and 36 doubles titles, stating that she wasn’t enjoying playing tennis.
The Swiss did return to competitive tennis but never become a force in the singles events thereafter. However, she went on to win multiple Grand Slam titles in doubles and mixed events, and formed a commendable pair with India’s Sania Mirza.
Her third and final retirement came in 2017, after a total of 25 Grand Slam titles – five in singles, seven in mixed doubles and 13 in doubles.
You can watch the highlights of her first Australian Open triumph here.
Her Wimbledon final win over Jana Novotna
The US Open final against Venus Williams