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Near Misses : The Hingis Meltdown, Part 1

antiMatterSenior Analyst INovember 5, 2009

The rules are always the same. The mechanics are always the same. But it never gets boring, even after watching for over a lifetime.

Such a rational platform with deterministic rules that say, "If A then B", perhaps not so ironically, is one that also provides infinite possibilities for enjoyment. And enjoyment comes only from discerning a variety and not a repetition of patterns (the converse is perhaps not true).

Why? Because of all the chaos and randomness that could be associated with the human participants. The variables are of unknown dimensions and quantities. The probabilities suggested by the pattern-seeking mind turn into predictions, prejudices become devotion, and hopes become beliefs.

And no factor can be as dramatic and unpredictable as the mind and the control by one's will over it. And there are many examples which would be nothing but case-studies in psychology.

For, Hingis should have won her French Open 1999 finals against Steffi Graf.

Hingis was the world number one at that time, and the next big thing in women's tennis at the age of 18, having won five slams already and needing only the French Open to give the beauty of totality to her achievements. Steffi was coming off an injury layoff and had planned the event as a warm up for the grass court season. She was clearly in her final years in tennis, kissing good bye to the sweet twenties.

Hingis had a well-rounded baseline game—a strong forehand, a backhand that was stronger than most forehands (including her own), great defensive skills and anticipation, and an almost "Agassi-an" ability to take the ball on the rise when needed. Not to forget a great sense of geometry and ability to use the full court in imaginative and creative ways to construct a point (sound familiar?).

When the courts did not play fast, the greatest weapon in women's tennis would definitely bow down to such a conglomeration. Yes, though Steffi's forehand could chew up a forehand, a backhand, and somebody's first serve all together and spit them out in contempt, this was a matchup that would judiciously factor out as much of it as possible from the proceedings.

That's how things were. Well, that's how things started—Hingis playing a great ground game, keeping her accuracy over the Everest, at the same time hitting winners, and exposing Steffi's backhand. She would also approach the net on many occasions, confident of her ability in that part of the world from her rich volleying experience from a doubles career, almost as decorated as her singles career.

Steffi's forehand when it got the chance, did inflict all the damage that it was notorious for, and her sliced backhand was deep enough, though going mostly cross-court, to keep Hingis from taking too much of an advantage. But there was no doubt who was the better player overall as Hingis took the first set breaking and holding serve one time more than Steffi did.

It must not be forgotten what the other human element was up to the whole time—the crowd. It was continuously cheering out for the veteran. And perhaps it was doing enough to make that cheering irritating, as happens sometimes, and Hingis was not comfortable with that really.

The drama in the match started unfolding in the second set when Hingis was a break up and Steffi was serving at 2-0 down. Hingis' return was called long on the baseline on the back-hand side. After an argument with the umpire, Hingis crossed over the net to check the mark—a prohibited action in tennis. The Parisian crowd decided that this had crossed arrogance and reached another level.

These antics helped only in bringing out the match referee who granted that and the next point to Steffi, and earning another opponent who was not really in one place, but all over the stadium.

The "smiling assassin" for some time seemed to be enjoying this duality of the opposition and played as well as she did the previous set. But the Parisian crowd is a slow and smooth assassin, and it methodically worked its way to get under her skin.

Hingis's protests that the crowd was cheering during points only made her earn more of the same bitter pill, which was also poisonous. In spite of all this, she clawed her way into 5-4 second set, serving for the championship. But it was clear that Hingis was not enjoying the moment at all, and her motor neurons were ordering her hands to agitate in tension, irritation, and anxiety.

Tension from the moment, irritation at the crowd, and anxiety at the unsureness of what was going to happen. Add to that a missed back hand, a long forehand, an opportunity let off at the net off a bad drop shot, and the fact that it was Steffi on the other side of the net, and the opportunity went away.

The second set slipped out of her hands. The third set too passed by in rapid speed as Hingis's mind revolted and Steffi's game became more cooperative and started reaching its lethal best.

She could trace out the trajectories of the ball in the air with her racquet that day that could have won her the match. But neither was this a problem in Newtonian Mechanics, nor was she a Physicist.

What she needed was her force of will to suppress the chain reaction of self-destruction her mind had been trapped in, triggered by the crowd and sustained by her own doubts and brashness trying to revolt against it rather than circumvent it.

After the match was over, Hingis herself neatly summarized what had happened by walking off the court ready to burst into tears, unable to let the world see that she had bowed down in more ways than one. And perhaps she would not have ventured out for the presentation had her mother not been present to take charge.

It was not the competitor but a protesting teenage girl that appeared for the ceremony. The innocent smile was back on her face, and there was no sign of the “brashness” that the crowd had punished her for.

She had a very genuine and friendly complaint to make too, “Steffi told me I am young, I have so many more chances, but I was three points away today, and you don't like to lose like this.”

Sometimes one does wish that it was all just about the mechanics.

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Hit these :

  • Rajat's opening piece to the near misses series
  • LJS's sequel to "The Hingis Meltdown"
  • Joan's article on the same, an older one from BR itself
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