Martina Hingis...Happy to be back
Martina Hingis' comeback has taken her to an enjoyable place, personally and professionally
By Charles Bricker
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted March 21 2006
KEY BISCAYNE · One more day and Martina Hingis will be here, ready for fun, fun, fun, and so far removed from that petulant, whiny kid who once cried at the end of the 1999 French Open final that you marvel at her transformation.
Not long after she picks up her player credential and stows her gear in her locker Wednesday, she'll be out on one of the practice courts to have a publicity hit with racecar driver Helio Castroneves, the two-time Indy 500 champion who will be burning rubber in Homestead on Sunday.
It's a perfect match. Castroneves loves tennis. Hingis loves life.
That's part of what this comeback, after three years of horseback riding and occasional TV work, is all about for Hingis. But this isn't only for a giggle or to prove her finesse and savvy still stand up against the bullishness of today's women's game.
She'll be giving you a few joyful looks at this tournament, self-satisfied after carefully constructing a long rally that ends in a forced error, but she's here to win and, after seven tournaments, she's vaulted from nowhere to No. 26 on the WTA Tour.
"No matter what happens now, I know I've come a far way," she said after losing in the semifinals at Indian Wells last week to Maria Sharapova. "This was probably one of my biggest fears, to come back and disappoint."
When she announced her comeback late in 2005, one of the first people in the game to rejoice was Chris Evert, who had been her WTA-designated mentor when Hingis was a teenager.
Evert's job was to sit down with her every few months or phone her and just make sure everything was OK off the court. She'll come back and make an impact, Evert said. But she wasn't so sure Hingis would ever get back to No. 1, where she had reigned for 209 weeks during her "first" tennis career.
Hingis was forced off the tour by a succession of foot injuries in 2002, when Serena and Venus Williams were at the height of their careers and who, along with Lindsay Davenport, had essentially hit Hingis and her delicate placement game off the court.
Today, she seems a better player -- fitter, a better runner and perhaps more powerful. She hasn't embarrassed herself in any match she's played since the Australian Open, where she went out in the quarterfinals to Kim Clijsters.
But neither has she won a tournament and, given the increasing depth on the women's tour, it might be some time before she triumphs in an important final.
Hingis has won 20 of 27 matches, but she's only 2-6 against top-10 opponents and the weakest part of her game, her soft second serve, doesn't appear to be any better than when she left.
Top opponents can put her on the defensive immediately by crushing it back, and that leaves Hingis scurrying to try to neutralize the point. She counters the power of Davenport, Sharapova and Amelie Mauresmo with short-angled shots and by changing the ball patterns, not just going crosscourt all the time but occasionally down the line or throwing in a drop shot.
"I know I can't overpower her," she said after losing 6-3, 6-3 to Sharapova last week in the Indian Wells semis. "Now I have to just last longer in that kind of game. Sometimes, it's mentally a little bit hard because you know you go out there and have to fight and dig for every point.
"But that's my only chance. Not only for three, four games to try to wear her out ... so she can't serve as good, so she's not running as well. That's what Justine [Henin-Hardenne] is doing. That's why Mauresmo is winning now. That's the way it should be."
How far can she go? There is still top-10 talent there, especially if Serena Williams, chronically injured, retires from tennis and she can avoid the injury-prone Venus Williams.
But to crack the top five seems unlikely. Hingis has had three months to size up the tour and she knows herself how tough this will be.
"It's over and over the same thing," she said of facing the battering-ram players on tour.
"I've had a good win against Davenport. I didn't play the greatest match against [Dinara] Safina, but it was good enough," she said.
Reflecting on the Sharapova loss, she said there was "not much more I could have done except have better stamina. But that's not one thing you can gain overnight."
If things stay on form at the Nasdaq, she'll face Henin-Hardenne in the quarterfinals. Hingis had won both their matches before she retired, and she lost the only match they've played, at Sydney, since she returned to tennis.
That would pit the two finesse players in the top 10 with the winner going on probably to play Mauresmo in the final. Hingis probably isn't going to reach the final four, but one thing seems certain.
She's going to have fun trying.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams