February 24, 2006

The “Navratilova Effect”

By H Natarajan

Not too long ago, WTA Tour authorities were forced to take hard decisions to curb the ill-effects of sustained exposure to top-level play by players in their early teens. One of the fears was the game losing talented players because of early burnout triggered by the wear and tear of undeveloped bodies.

Ironically, the game today has many top-level players who are setting new standards in longevity. The amazing beacon, not just for the sport of tennis, is Martina Navratilova. Inching toward her 50th birthday in a few months time, the dinosaur of tennis said recently that she plans to play a full schedule of doubles tournaments this year - including the Grand Slams - and may even take another jab at singles. The Grand Old Lady underwent arthroscopic surgery in December last after injuring her left knee that kept her out of this year’s opening Grand Slam and other tournaments.

She quit the game in 1994 with a tally of 167 singles titles and held the world No 1 ranking for 331 weeks. She made her comeback as a doubles player in 2000 and three years later won the mixed doubles titles with Leander Paes at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon - the oldest-ever Grand Slam champion at 46 years, eight months. Later, she forayed into singles as well and even recorded a 1st round victory at the 2004 Wimbledon - at 47 years and eight months, the oldest player to win a professional singles match in the Open Era. Last year she proved that she is no pushover at her age when she partnered Anna-Lena Groenfeld to reach the semis at Wimbledon and the US Open.

In a sport where the likes of Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and Maria Sharapova were setting new highs while still early in their teens, Navratilova revolutionised the sport by proving that age is only a number and it is all in the mind how young or old you feel.

The “Navratilova Effect” was inspirational. Mary Pierce had plummeted to No 130 in the world in 2001 from No 7 the previous year after suffering injuries to her abdomen, ankles, shoulder and back. Last year, at age 30 and in her 17th year on the WTA Tour, she scripted one of the big success stories when she made the women’s singles final of the French and US Opens and won the mixed doubles with Mahesh Bhupathi at Wimbledon. It was an entire decade earlier that Pierce, at age 20, won the first of her two Grand Slam titles - at the 1995 Australian Open to rise to No 2 on the WTA computer.

Pierce said she felt stronger than ever after losing the 2005 US Open final at 2005 to Kim Clijsters. She did not drop a set till the semis and had beaten three top players in No 3 Amelie Mauresmo, No 7 Hennin-Hardenne and No 6 Elena Dementieva.

Kim Clijsters is relatively younger than Pierce, but she has spoken about retiring from the circuit next year. Clijsters, like Pierce, charted a fantastic career comeback. In fact, she broke a rankings record, emerging from a low of No. 134 in March 2005 to the No 1 slot in a ten-month span. It’s the first instance of any tennis player, man or woman, to rise from outside the top 100 to No. 1 in less than year.

When she grabbed the world No 1 ranking in 2003, she became the first player to get to there without ever winning Grand Slam title. However, Clijsters ensured that she will not have to retire from the game without a Slam singles crown when she won the US Open last year.

Before the amazing comebacks of Pierce and Clijsters, there was a similar story enacted by Jennifer Capriati, who will be 30 next month. The American finished her first year on the tour in 1990 as No 8 and remained in the top ten for four successive years. But by 1998 she had slipped out of the top 100, but fought her way to become the world No 1 by 2001 and remained in the top 10 till 2004. She has since be sidelined by a shoulder injury

On the ATP Tour, there is the evergreen Andre Agassi. Ranked No 1 in the world in April 1995, he slipped to an ignominious 141 in November 1997. But with a granite will and unwavering dedication he reclaimed the No 1 slot 19 months later. After 20 years of grind on the international circuit, he looks a lot different from the flamboyant, long-haired youngster who captured the imagination of tennis fans around the world. But at 36, he is still a force to reckon with as was seen from his fighting exit in the final of the 2005 US Open against the formidable Roger Federer. He ended the year in Top 10 for 16th time in two decades and became oldest player in year-end Top 10 since Jimmy Connors (36) was No. 7 in 1988. Connors, it’s worth recalling here, was ranked 174 in the world and a wild card entrant three years later at the age of 39, when he gutsed it out to reach the US Open semis before losing to Jim Courier.

This brings us to Martina Hingis, another veteran on the comeback trail. Hingis career seemed over at 22 because of injuries, but she made her return to professional tennis last month at Gold Coast, Australia and won the mixed doubles title with Mahesh Bhupathi at the Australian Open.

Bhupathi was unambiguous about Hingis’s singles future. “I told her also after the match (final) it's just gonna take two or three months and to be able to handle the top three, four. The pace is obviously different from three years ago. But once she starts playing a few matches at that level, I think she's going to be able to handle it. I'll be very surprised actually after Wimbledon if she's not in the top 5,” Bhupathi said after the final.

When one considers the amazing comebacks of Navratilova, Pierce, Capriati, Clijsters and Agassi, there is enough reason to believe that Martina could get back to the exalted position she once held with distinction.