SHENZHEN, China - Former two-time WTA Finals winner Martina Hingis praised fellow Swiss player Belinda Bencic’s return to the top of the game, after a comeback season culminating at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
“It's amazing. It's so nice to see her back playing well,” Hingis told journalists in Shenzhen. “I always, when I talk to her, say no one can take away the tennis from you. You need to be able that your body lets you do that.
“Unfortunately she had a few injuries that she couldn't play at the level that she does. Now she's back. I'm very happy for her.”
After struggling with her physical health following her breakout 2015, Bencic bounced back in a big way this season, lifting two titles - at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Champions and Kremlin Cup in Moscow - the latter of which secured her eleventh hour qualification for Shenzhen on the final week of the regular WTA season. As a result, Bencic rose from outside the WTA’s Top 50 rankings to return to her career-high World No.7.
“With Belinda playing well again, I think she’s more... I think she has arrived now, I would say,” Hingis told wtatennis.com. “More grounded. You know, before she played well and won tournaments, and everything happened really fast, I think.
“Now, it’s a little bit more wisdom, I’d say, five years later! More experience.”
With Bencic clinching the semifinals in her first WTA Finals, Hingis recalled her own debut at the WTA’s season-ending championships back in 1996, then held at New York City’s historic Madison Square Garden. Aged just 16, Hingis went all the way to the final before falling to the defending champion Stefanie Graf in an electric five-set battle.
“You just feel special, and it’s something that not everybody gets to experience it,” Hingis said. “Even in Grand Slams, there’s 128 players - here, it’s just eight. So that was really cool, to be part of this unique and elite group of people.”
“I mean, you get the daily gifts on your bed, you get the perks, that’s really cool,” Hingis added with a grin. “Every player gets their own locker room here. I mean, we didn’t have that back then, but I think it’s really, really cool. They really make you feel special.”
A WTA Finals Legend Ambassador, Hingis also served as a mentor for the WTA Future Stars participants, and spent her first day in Shenzhen giving advice to the players participating in the Under-14 and Under-16 competitions. It’s a position she’s uniquely qualified for, having wracked up a series of “youngest ever” records after winning her first Grand Slam at 16 and rising to the World No.1 ranking in the same season.
“You’re kind of thrown into it, you’re 16, and no one can prepare you for this,” she recalled. “I mean, it’s different to be No.1, No.5, or No.10 already at this age. And No.1 is just really something different.
“I felt sometimes, like, to play tennis or to go to practice, that was almost like an escape from everything that was happening around me, you know? You were like, okay breathe, this is something that I actually am good at!”
“The demands on you, which were more mental demands than physical sometimes,” Hingis added. “That was almost the harder part.
“Everyone wants a piece of you, which is nice and great, because you’re so good, but on the other hand it’s like, I wanna just play my matches!”
After announcing her final retirement from tennis at the WTA Finals in 2017 - retiring as the top-ranked doubles player in the world after a Hall of Fame singles career - Hingis is firmly settled into life after tennis, and happy to impart her lessons learned onto the next generation. The Swiss player paid a visit to the Gemdale Academy and hosted a clinic for WTA Charities, with the goal of bringing more youngsters to the sport.
“I think it's always important to have role models,” Hingis said. “I think [China] invests a lot into sports in general. To have a women's tennis tournament here, it's great for us, for women's sports, for women's tennis.
“I think they've already made big steps with Li Na, and Zheng Jie, who is from Shenzhen. I think you always need role models to look up to. Hopefully a lot of young girls will pick up tennis racquets in the future.”