Fame and fortune came too easy. She won her prizes too effortlessly, too young. When you never lose, you never learn how to lose.
You exhibit arrogance in your impatience with those standing in the way of what you want.
Such was the fate of precocious Martina Hingis in the finals of the French Open in 1999.
Ranked No. 1 in the world—a ranking she held for a remarkable 209 weeks—Hingis had been winning tournaments since age 15, when she teamed with Helena Sukova to win the Wimbledon doubles championship.
In fact, Hingis holds a calendar year slam in doubles—an honor she won in 1998. In total, she has nine Grand Slam doubles championships.
Her first singles championship was the Australian Open in 1997 at age 16. She left the game with five Grand Slam singles titles—three Australian, one Wimbledon, and one U.S. Open Championship.
Having won the Australian Open in 1999 in singles and in doubles, Hingis was having a stellar year. She found herself in the finals of the French Open facing veteran Steffi Graf, who had not won in major in three years.
Graf considered herself a surprise finalist, admitting frankly that she had entered the French Open that year just to help her fine-tune her tournament skills and sharpen her will for Wimbledon.
Graf had defeated the No. 3 seed, Lindsay Davenport and the No. 2 seed, Monica Seles, and now stood ready to meet the No. 1 seed, Martina Hingis, who had pushed her out of the No. 1 ranking in 1997.
Graf, almost 30 years of age, faced the dynamic, toothy-grinned 18-year-old teenager from Switzerland in a contest that would go down in French Open finals history.
Hingis played great tennis, taking the first set, 6-4, and leading by a 2-0 margin in the second set. That is when the bottom fell out of Hingis’ well-ordered, self-assured world.
Hingis disputed a line call. Her ball was called out. She felt the ball had hit the line. Hingis asked the umpire to check the line, which she did. The call stood.
Hingis then walked over to Graf’s side of the net and pointed to the mark she felt proved her point. This was arrogance in full bloom. It was also grounds for a penalty point.
You cannot cross over to the opponent’s side of the net. It is written. Hingis knew that and did it anyway.
Still the umpire did not penalize her. Hingis refused to play on, instead taking her chair and asking for the tournament referee.
The referee came on court and denied Hingis an overrule. Further, the referee imposed the penalty and Hingis lost the argument and, at that point, the match.
The French crowd, already pulling for Graf, became absolutely hostile toward Hingis from this point forward. Graf won the game and the score stood 2-1.
With Hingis still smiling broadly as only she could do, the wrangling continued into the next game when a call went against Graf. Hingis held and went up in the second set, 3-1.
But the crowd turned vicious against Hingis, and, spurred on by such support, Graf broke back in the sixth game of the set and then held serve to go up, 4-3.
The next game was exhilarating, with an array of drop shots and lobs that saw Graf blink first—allowing Hingis to pull even at 4-4.
Hingis continued her assault and broke again to go up, 5-4, allowing her to serve for the set and the match—the French Open Championship.
The crowd continued to chant “Steffi!” They cheered at errors committed by Hingis. Underneath the smile, the world No. 1 began to crumble. Graf began to congeal her game and her will.
Serving for the set and the match, Hingis found herself down double break point. She saved one but failed in a drop-shot attempt. Graf leveled the match at 5-5.
Graf held her serve at love and then broke Hingis again to win the second set. The crowd was jubilant and Hingis was broken in game and in spirit. But she did not know how to lose...she kept fighting.
The crowed booed her when she took a break and came back with new clothes and a change in her bandanna. They booed her when in desperation she served underhand to save a match point.
In 1989, when Michael Chang did that against Ivan Lendl, the French crowd applauded. But for Hingis, they jeered.
Hingis was never a factor in the third set. She lost it 6-2.
Graf won the match as much as Hingis lost it, but both were heavily impacted by the French crowd, as one grew in strength from the support while the other diminished in capacity as the crowd turned ugly and berated her every move.
Yes, Hingis was guilty of hubris. Her self-assured arrogance cost her dearly in this match. But she was 18 and the crowd was unforgiving. It was not a fair fight. She left the court in tears, breaking down completely once the match was over.
Hingis soared early and landed prematurely. Her career was like a rocket exploding on its way to the stratosphere.
Hingis exuded confidence that was refreshing with her brilliant smile and that playful cheeriness. At heart, she was a ruthless competitor. But that is what it takes to succeed on the world stage.
This match denied her a chance to win the French Championship. It denied her a chance to win slams on all surfaces. It gave Graf a glorious exit from the French Open. She was able to leave Roland Garros with the trophy and the undying support of the French.
Vive la France! But never displease the French crowd during the finals at Stade Roland Garros...
Written by special request...JAA