A tale of two Martinas

SPORT is full of ironies. Yet, nothing that we've seen in recent times might have been quite as ironic as the tale of the two Martinas during the first week of the French Open tennis championship in Paris.

SPORT is full of ironies. Yet, nothing that we've seen in recent times might have been quite as ironic as the tale of the two Martinas during the first week of the French Open tennis championship in Paris. For, the Martina we might have expected to see on the centre stage — and perhaps dominate it too — was sitting in the stands, a mere spectator, while the one we might have expected to see in the commentary booth dispensing words of wisdom was actually out in the middle sweating it out.

Martina Hingis is 22 years old. She won five Grand Slam titles between 1997 and 1999. But her will undone by injuries and the turbo-charged tennis of the Williams sisters, Hingis now prefers English lessons to practice sessions and skiing holidays to actual matchplay.

On the other hand, Martina Navratilova, at 46 old enough to have been Hingis's mother, is still busy trying to add to her rich collection of Grand Slam titles, buoyed by the fact that she did become the oldest player to win one in Melbourne last January, in the company of Leander Paes.

Indeed, sport is a strange matter. Navratilova has always insisted that age is a state of mind and 30 years after making the French Open quarterfinals on debut — 1973 — the great lady was back in Paris, playing mixed doubles with Paes and women's doubles with Svetlana Kuznetzova.

As for Hingis, long before she made her retirement official, it had been obvious to many keen observers of the sport that the young woman appeared to lack motivation and looked jaded for the most part. You could see it on her face, in her actions and sometimes in her words during post-match interviews. If burn-out has been common in women's tennis long before Tracy Austin disappeared from the centre stage after promising so much in the 1970s, then the sort of endurance and desire that Navratilova has displayed are not quite as common.

But, then, what is it that makes a Navratilova want to play on into her late 40s in the highly competitive world of tennis while forcing someone less than half her age — Hingis — to throw in the towel and run away from the sport she dominated only a few years ago?

There are obvious answers, and then reasons that are well hidden. The first has to do with how much an athlete loves his/her sport. There are some, like Navratilova, whose love runs so deep that they are willing to make all sorts of sacrifices to stay competitive well past retirement age.

Then there is the question of fitness. Navratilova is such a gifted athlete that at 46 she has the mobility of a person 15 years or more younger. And as she said in Melbourne after winning the mixed doubles title with Paes, she has been very lucky in her career not to have been injured seriously at any point of time.

Finally, there is the question of a person's interests, the question of how much a person enjoys life in the sport (tennis in this case) as opposed to life outside the sport. Some, like the great Bjorn Borg, found out the moment he took a break that he loved life away from tennis too much to want to return to it in a hurry.

And when Borg did return, it was too late, although it must be said, in fairness, that the great Swede came back to play singles and not doubles as Navratilova is doing now. Borg's arch-rival, John McEnroe, had greater success than the Swede on his return from a long sabbatical in 1986 but the New Yorker never even reached a Grand Slam final in the second half of his career.

There are those who appear to burn out and then rebuild themselves from the ashes, so to say, and others who simply turn their backs on their sport for good. This again is down to whether the athlete is happy with life away from the sport.

Right now, the greatest male tennis player of our times — and, arguably, of all time — Pete Sampras seems so happy with his life away from tennis that the chances of his reappearance on a Grand Slam stage seem remote. And Sampras is not even the type to consider coaching or a stint in the commentary box.

Then again, Hingis is no Sampras. She is 22 and won just five Grand Slam titles compared to the great man's record 14. But in her case, what appeared to have influenced the decision was her belief that she did not have the levels of desire needed to reinvent herself as a champion. And the last thing she might have wanted was to settle in the slot of one of life's perennial quarterfinalists. After having dominated a sport for some time,that would have been a huge knock to her ego, to her self-esteem as a player and a person.