MELBOURNE, Australia — Show Court 3 was not far from empty last week as Yulia Putintseva and Eugenie Bouchard played in the full heat of a Melbourne summer in the semifinals of the Australian Open girls tennis tournament.
In the third row of the stands, under a broad-brimmed straw hat and without the benefit of a racket, Martina Hingis put her clenched fists together and imitated the backhand stroke that she wished she had seen from Putintseva.
Hingis, now 31, did not see many empty seats during her playing career. The ultimate tennis prodigy, she turned pro at 14 after dominating her elders as a junior and won her first major title at age 16 at the Australian Open, becoming the youngest Grand Slam singles champion in the 20th century.
Two months later, she was the youngest No. 1 in tennis history and went on to reach the final of the French Open and win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — all before she turned 17.
Times, physical demands and training methods have changed. Putintseva — a stocky Russian who likes to smash rackets as well as forehands — turned 17 earlier this month and is still working and storming her way through the juniors. She lost in the final to American Taylor Townsend.
“I enjoy watching the girls, the younger ones,” Hingis said. “It’s not always the easiest; I know how I was at 17 or 18. Sometimes I watch the old videos and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ you know? I wasn’t always the best listener with my mom.”
Hingis, long coached by her mother, Melanie Molitor, is now the one trying to make her case to teenagers. She is working as a coaching consultant with Putintseva and four other young women in France. All have their personal coaches and are based at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy west of Paris in the suburb of Thiverval-Grignon. The group includes two Russians, among them former U.S. Open junior champion Daria Gavrilova, an American, a Briton and a French player.
“It’s good because I was multicultural, too, so that helps,” said Hingis, who is Swiss but was born in Kosice in what is now Slovakia.
Hingis, who married a French equestrian, Thibault Hutin, in December 2010, was the one who initiated the coaching job, approaching the academy’s founder, Patrick Mouratoglou, at the U.S. Open last year.
“I think now I’m ready to do it,” Hingis said. “Before I was more thinking about maybe playing or doing this and that, and now I’m ready more to give, and I love working with the kids, too. I say kids, but I should say young women. They are making their own stand on the tour, playing the juniors and getting into the seniors. I think it’s a very interesting age.”
Mouratoglou, a Frenchman, has made a habit of hiring star coaches, including Peter Lundgren and Tony Roche, both of whom worked with Roger Federer. But Mouratoglou said he was not seeking to bolster public relations by bringing Hingis on board but rather was connecting with a kindred tennis spirit.
“Martina has a conception of tennis that is very close to my own,” Mouratoglou said. “I have always worked with players to get them inside the court and take the ball early. I think it’s the game of the future. Not necessarily coming to net, if they come to net all the better, but the game of the future is to be able to take time away from the opponent, to cut the trajectories off.
“It’s what Roger Federer does very well and what Novak Djokovic does very, very well, but 90 percent of the other players are not doing it. But Martina always did this. It’s the way she was taught, the way she learned to play the game.”
Putintseva and Gavrilova said in interviews that they had been encouraged by Hingis to expand their range.
“The trainings with her are really intense,” Gavrilova said. “And we always do something different and are working on many things, and she’s really playing inside the court, so that’s what she wants me to improve.”
Hingis, in her first major tournament in this role, is one of two former world No. 1 players to join the coaching ranks this season. But unlike Ivan Lendl, now 51 and working with Andy Murray, Hingis is still of an age to be competing at this level. One of her primary rivals, Serena Williams, remains a main contender at age 30, and Venus Williams, 31, plans to return to competition this week for the Fed Cup. Kim Clijsters, who will turn 29 this year, reached the semifinals here.
“They have a different game; they have serves; they have big first shots,” Hingis said. “I was a different player.”
She said she was not surprised that Serena Williams, in particular, has endured.
“The willpower of Serena, nobody can beat that,” she said. “There has not been another player who has the same hunger.”
Hingis last played on tour more than four years ago when she retired (for the second time) in November 2007 after testing positive for cocaine metabolite at Wimbledon that year. It was a trace amount. Hingis declared that she had not ingested cocaine wittingly, declined to engage in an expensive, extended appeal process and chose to retire instead — something she said she was already considering. She was later given a two-year ban that restricted her formal access to tournament sites.
“It wasn’t the greatest way to stop, that’s for sure,” she said.
She added: “I just look into the future. You can’t look back. Two years, they passed away, and now the last two years have been great, being back in business and in tennis. This has always been my home.”