Hingis still thinking about a comeback?
The Swiss missed
Hingis tries to find her game in backwaters
By WAYNE COFFEY
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
It's just past 11 p.m. in the suburbs and a warm wind is blowing off the Long Island Sound, the air as soggy as oatmeal.
At Harbor Island Park in Mamaroneck, the 300 people who turned out for the season opener of the New York Sportimes, the local franchise of World Team Tennis, have long since departed. The player most of them came to see is alone in a tent, propped up on a table, getting her legs rubbed down by a trainer. Her name is on the back of her shirt, per WTT custom. She is the one player on the Sportimes who needs no identification.
Why would you, when you've won five Grand Slam singles titles, nine more in doubles? When you spent more than four years as the No. 1 player in the world?
"It seems like it's been awhile," Martina Hingis says with a faint smile.
Twenty miles and three years removed from her last professional match in New York - a round-of-16 loss to Monica Seles at the U.S. Open - Hingis returned to one of her favorite cities in the world last week, finding herself in a strange sort of limbo. At 24, she is way too young for a mid-life crisis, and way too old to be considered a prodigy.
Hingis' two surgically repaired ankles are healthy. Her 5-7, 130-pound body looks fit, if not tour-ready. She forged an astonishing career out of two gifted hands and a tennis mind that had no equal, anticipating shots, knowing where she needed to be, talents that enabled her to flourish even against the vastly more powerful Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport.
Now her mind is trying to decipher something else entirely: whether she is going to make a comeback to the women's tour, or just take her $18 million career earnings and move on.
It is no easy decision. Before the Sportimes played the Hartford FoxForce last week, she sat in a hot tent with a grass floor and took questions from three reporters. "It's not like (this is) a comeback," she said. "I'm just playing some matches."
Later, after she'd lost in singles (to Meghann Shaughnessy) and in mixed doubles (with Mark Merklein) but won in women's doubles (with Jenny Hopkins), she was not so definite.
"I am just enjoying playing tennis. We will see what will pop out after that."
It was eight years ago that Hingis took hold of the tennis world, a sweet-faced Swiss girl who, at 16 years, 6 months, became the youngest No. 1 ranked player in history. But for a loss to Iva Majoli in the French Open, she would've swept all four Grand Slams in 1997. She won 67 of 69 matches at one point that year, and there was nothing to suggest that she wouldn't continue to dominate for years to come, before Venus and Serena Williams emerged and Davenport became re-energized, and Hingis began to experience persistent ankle trouble and periodic big-match meltdowns, most notably in the 1999 French final to Steffi Graf and the 2002 Australian Open final to Jennifer Capriati.
Hingis wound up having surgery on her left ankle in May, 2002, and was probably too ambitious coming back for the U.S. Open. After a straight set loss to Elena Dementieva, she dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in six years - and then dropped off the tour.
For the first two years away, Hingis reveled in the respite from the globetrotting grind that is pro tennis. She skied, rode horses and spent time with boyfriends. She started doing some tennis commentary work, and with a steady influx of fan letters, began to wonder if she should give tennis another shot. That Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters returned after extended time offered encouragement.
Five months ago, Hingis entered a small tournament in Thailand, where she lost to 73rd-ranked Marlene Weingartner of Germany, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2. She said to read nothing into her re-appearance, and is still saying that, about her first foray into WTT.
Hingis played her first three singles sets for the Sportimes last week, and admitted to being nervous before them. She defeated Carly Gullikson of the Philadelphia Freedoms in her debut, then lost to Shaughnessy, before shutting out her namesake, Martina Navratilova, 5-0 (WTT contests are single-set affairs, with the first player to win five games prevailing), in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday night.
"Maybe (Hingis is) toying with the idea of playing again," says Billie Jean King, founder of the WTT. "I don't know. (But) she's been an unbelievable ambassador for the league and for tennis, and she's playing unbelievably well."
At her best, Hingis relished few things more than beating stronger, quicker, opponents with her soft hands and savvy shotmaking. "The game isn't just power. I still believe someone like me or Justine (the 5-6 Henin-Hardenne) can succeed," she says.
A half-hour before the match with the FoxForce, Hingis is the attraction of a meet-and-greet in a hospitality tent. She poses for pictures and signs autographs, which she does again for a half-hour after the Sportimes win the match. As Harbor Island Park empties, Hingis heads back to the Sportimes clubhouse. She doesn't know what the future will bring, only that it feels sweet to be back on a tennis court.
"I love the game," Hingis says. "It's a beautiful game."