Hingis hopes to re-invent herself in Paris
Posted: 19 hours ago
Two weeks ago, after she lost a brutally long three-setter to her great rival Venus Williams in Warsaw, Martina Hingis was visibly frustrated.
"I don't want to get used to losing close matches," Hingis said then. "There are people who give up and those who do something about it. You've just got to dig in deep."
That's what the five-time Grand Slam champion did in Rome, winning her first title since 2002 with a series of impressive victories, knocking out five Top 20 players en route to the title. She schooled Czech teen Nicole Vaidisova, flummoxed top 20 Italians Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta and then turned the tables on Williams, taking a 0-6, 6-3, 6-3 win where she combined guile and shotmaking. In the final, she chopped down red-hot Russian Dinara Safina 6-2, 7-5.
Martina Hingis was all smiles Sunday after winning the Italian Open.
(Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)
After nearly five months of straining to win her first crown in her vaunted comeback, Hingis looked fully confident at Tier I Rome, taking a huge red clay court title while many of the world's best were in attendance.
Before last week, it would have been hard to call her a true challenger for the French Open. After Rome, it's easy to place her among the top eight contenders.
"Playing tournaments and gaining more respect from the players and winning matches, I think it showed that I still had some game," said Hingis. "Now with winning this event, I know that I can do it again. Now I did it, so the confidence is on my side. I feel I definitely have it in me."
So much of Hingis' inability to immediately win titles had to do with her not having her sea legs yet. While she posted a number of standout wins when she first came back in January after nearly three-and-a-half years off the tour, she had a hard time maintaining her level in later rounds.
For example, in February in Tokyo, she stunned Maria Sharapova in the semifinals, only to be bullied by Elena Dementieva in the final. She simply couldn't catch her breath.
But week after week, tournament after tournament, she began to find her tennis conditioning and consequently was rarely blown out anymore. With sturdier legs and more expansive lungs, it became easier for her to impose her high variety game on her opponents.
When Hingis ruled the roost at No.1 — and she did so for a remarkable 209 weeks — she won matches not only with her head, touch and tremendous backhand, but with steely defense.
Before Rome, her defense was sporadic over the long haul. But last week, she showed that she could put on a goal line stand in the Pittsburg Steelers mode. Title No. 41 was due to her willingness to go to the wall and beyond it.
"I almost feel like I won my first title," said Hingis. "All these dreams you have, it's really one of them that came true. But it's probably because I played someone in the finals who I believed I had a chance to beat, so it's a little different than when I had to play Venus. I felt like this is my chance; I can take it."
Winning the French Open will be much tougher for Hingis. She has reached the final twice before — in 1997 and 1999 — and on both occasions should have come away with the trophy.
In 1997, the year when she won three other Grand Slam titles, she was totally uninspiring in a loss to a player she was substantially better than, Iva Majoli.
In 1999, Hingis was the marquee attraction in perhaps the biggest meltdown in modern women's tennis history, when she pouted, screamed and cried, while letting go of a set and break lead in a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 loss to German legend Steffi Graf.
Hingis served for that match in the second set but was so overcome by negative emotions that she never appeared in control. Upset that she crossed the net early in the second set to dispute a call, the crowd ate her alive, and she was never a major factor at the tournament again.
Moreover, her reputation as a gleeful court general took a major hit, and she was henceforth seen as the petulant brat.
"I was crazy," Hingis said a few years later while reflecting on the match. "Some kids do other things like school and screw up in their tests. They screw up even though they knew everything, but they still get nervous. It was a bad loss. I had it right there to take it. But I was into it too much because I played one of the legends and one of the best ever. I felt I really had control over the match, and then I was too emotional about everything. But I was 17! C'mon, other kids do more stupid things. Like in San Diego, they are shooting at each other. Helloooo! I didn't kill anyone."
No, but she committed manslaughter on her own reputation, at least in Paris. The French crowd has a long memory, and while 1999 may seem like eons ago in some sports circles, to the box seat holders at Roland Garros, the memory of Hingis angrily walking to the other baseline and circling a mark right in front of crowd darling Graf (not exactly sportsmanlike behavior), or that she served underhanded on two match point will likely remain fresh.
So for Hingis to even have half a chance in the tournament, not only is she going to have to play brilliantly and run forever, but she's going to have to stay very, very cool and almost stone-faced, a tough task for an ultra-expressive person.
The teenage Hingis couldn't do that, but maybe the 25-year-old Hingis can. It's her second tennis life, and there's no question that she wants to be reincarnated as a French Open champion.
"I had my chances in the past," she said. This year there are many good players who can do well in the tournament. I've always said I'm a good horse, but still an underdog. Though definitely this win in Rome will give my confidence a big boost."