FROM THE ACURA CLASIC IN SAN DIEGO - Martina Hingis isn't sure she's ever going to be a Top-5 player again and her lack of self-belief was uniquely apparent in her 7-5, 6-2 loss to Kim Clijsters in the Acura Classic quarters.
Hingis is so unsure about whether she can push herself up to an elite level that after her press conference ended, she asked the writers in attendance to break down her game.
It was an interesting bull session, where her odd decision to try to add an inside forehand was discussed, as was her devaluation of her spectacular backhand, her indecision as to how often to come to net, her improving first serve and still spotty second serve.
Hingis was very open-minded in discussing her technical game, because mentally, she can't figure out whether she's actually just a few months away from playing at an elite level again, or that she may never be able to replace the three years she lost to injury and burnout.
She's unsure whether she wants to keep grinding hard because she's already put in a tremendous amount of work and the fruits of her labor haven't been as sweet as she'd like. She's almost sure to crack the Top 10 before the US Open, but other than her two good wins over Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova, all she counts is losses to the other notables.
She's not really close to beating Clijsters yet, doesn't have as many tools as Justine Henin-Hardenne does, isn't sure she can go very deep in the third set with Amelie Mauresmo and has dropped her last two matches to the relentless Sharapova.
"Sometimes its hard when you see one side of the life and then you see the other side," Hingis said. "You should stay on the line and there are many ways that can distract you. You have to keep your focus and work hard, have discipline to beat the Top 5, not just the five to 1000."
The 25-year-old Swiss can get back there, but she'll have to be much more patient with herself, make sure she gets to the gym and practices a ton. Her backhand is still one of the sweetest shots in tennis, but her forehand is sporadic, her serve is up-and -down (she actually hit a 112-mph service winner but often spinned in second serves in the 70s) and when she's not hitting great returns, she finds herself too often behind the eight ball.
Against someone like Clijsters, who hits so deep, is so fast and dares you to play long points with her, Hingis presses. The Swiss tried everything she could, but there were times that she chucked up ridiculous drop shots (Clijsters was proud how she actually hit more drop shots winners than Hingis did), or tried down the line blasts when she was completely off balance.
She played very well to come back from a 2-4 deficit in the first set to take a 5-4 lead, but Clijsters held at love serving brilliantly, and then Hingis fizzled, not believing that she could string together another strong run.
"Sometimes it's hard when the points go like that and she holds so easily," Hingis said "Mentally she puts so much pressure on you. She doesn't really give you a free point. She doesn't really have a weakness. At the beginning, she hit every line. I used to do that"
Actually, Clijsters does have weaknesses, but they are hard to poke at on hard courts and Hingis went back on her vow the night before that she would commit to a long grind.
Hingis: 'I'm lacking stamina'
"I'm lacking stamina," she said. "It's the focus. I wish I could play her every day so I could used to her intensity. I'm pushing the top players, but you have to play matches like today a lot. I started doubting myself. I'm not happy with just reaching the quarterfinals."
Hingis' mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, is with her the rest of the North American swing and hopefully will keep her daughter's spirits up. If Hingis commits to legging out more points, stop trying to muscle her forehand too much and stay more with the creative base that once made her the world’s most admired thinking player, she'll be much better off.
What she occasionally forgets is that she won her five Slam titles with defense, guile and a gorgeous backhand. Gradual improvements on her serve and forehand are necessary and she has to come in a little more (she almost never misses a negotiable volley), but it's her commitment to excellence over the long haul that will get her there.
If she loses spirit now, she has no chance at recapturing her former glory.
"When you see a goal in front, you can do it," she said. "After Wimbledon (where she was stunned by Ai Sugiyama) I was disappointed. I didn't want to have those things happen again. After a loss, I can go back to my foundation and build up again. My mom told me not to give up after I've been playing better much better. Don't back off."
Clijsters will face Nicole Vaidisova, who advanced with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Russian Anna Chakvetadze. That's will be a rough match for Clijsters, who beat the Czech last week, but whose body is aching.
Speaking of sore legs, second-seed Sharapova wasted defending champion Mary Pierce (who was playing in thigh wraps) 6-2, 6-3. The Russian will meet Patty Schnyder, who beat Elena Dementieva 6-4, 6-3.