Martina Hingis defeated Timea Babos, a Hungarian teenager ranked 66th in the world, 5-3 in World Team Tennis on Randall’s Island last week, as snippets of Journey and Pearl Jam were broadcast between points.
The coed league that Billie Jean King helped start in 1974 features music, on-court coaching and sets that end when a player wins five games, not six. That makes it easier for retired stars to play singles, doubles and mixed doubles in an evening.
“I felt sore for two days after my first match, and it didn’t even seem that hard, right?” Hingis, 31, said days later in an interview at the Sportime facility on Randall’s Island, home of the WTT’s New York Sportimes. “I’m not 17 anymore.”
Thirteen years after she won the last of her five grand slam singles titles, Hingis’s rapid patter still suggests the ebullience of a teenage prodigy. Her life as a retiree, following $20.1 million of career prize money, doesn’t sound bad. In addition to WTT, she plays exhibitions, works with elite juniors at a Paris tennis academy and occasionally rides horses and jumps competitively.
In 2010, she married Thibault Hutin, a French show jumper six years her junior. For fun, they play golf. She recently started working with a Vancouver apparel company, Tonic, on her own line of tennis wear.
It’s Hingis’s fifth season playing WTT. She said she particularly enjoys the camaraderie and the doubles, a game in which she won nine grand slam titles.
“You have your teammate, you help each other out,” she said. “Even on a day when you’re not feeling great you have someone to lift you up and vice versa. I think it’s pretty cool.”
To a first-time visitor, a surprise of WTT is how seriously players take it, running down balls and questioning the umpire’s calls. They have a financial incentive, with bonuses for performance. Base pay is $15,000 to $25,000 per 14-match season, said Chuck Adams, a former world No. 34 who coaches the Sportimes. Hingis earns about $7,000 a match, plus bonus.
Her racket skills are near her peak, Adams said. “She’s consistently beating girls who are (ranked) 60 to 80 in the world, which isn’t easy to do,” he said.
Last night, she won in singles, doubles and mixed doubles - - pairing with John McEnroe to best Andre Agassi and Carly Gullickson-Eagle.
“Come on, harder,” Hingis playfully taunted Agassi after he smacked a first serve long against her.
“I don’t want to get in a rally with you,” Agassi replied. “It’s embarrassing.” (Earlier, Agassi beat McEnroe in singles.)
Although three months younger than Venus Williams, Hingis has no plans for a comeback.
“Sometimes it’s tempting, if I feel good out there and I’m playing well,” she said. “But I know the grind behind it. It’s not just playing one match. It’s another match and another match and another match. The week-after-week living out of the bag, the lifestyle and everything, I don’t miss that at all.”
Hingis retired from the pro tour in 2007 after she disclosed that she tested positive for cocaine while competing at Wimbledon. She repeatedly denied taking any recreational drugs. Her two-year suspension by the International Tennis Federation ended in 2009.
Midway through Wimbledon last month, she presciently blogged that the prime beneficiary of Rafael Nadal’s second-round loss was her countryman Roger Federer, who decades earlier worked as a ball boy at a tournament that she played in Basel.
“He has a great chance to win the Olympics,” she said in the interview, which was before the reigning Olympic tennis champion, Rafael Nadal, announced that he was dropping out.
The WTT regular season continues through July 28 around the U.S.
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Craig Seligman on film.