Return Winner?: Hingis assesses her comeback
By Jorge Viale and Kamakshi Tandon
Martina Hingis has never conducted her tennis career at a slow and leisurely pace. She won her first Grand Slam at the tender age of 12. At 16, she became the youngest-ever world No. 1. Even when a combination of injuries and big hitters conspired to knock her off the top spot, Hingis didn’t waste time hanging around, announcing her retirement from the sport at 22.
So it figures that since deciding to 'unretire' at the beginning of this year, Hingis has climbed back up the ranks with typically rapid speed. Starting with no ranking at all, she’s up to No. 7 in just over 10 months.
“Some players were surprised and others not. The most critics I’ve had were about my physical level and I’ve proved them wrong,” said Hingis in Madrid on Monday. “Besides, I [was] No. 1 for four years for a reason.”
Still, the demands of the tour have taken their toll. “Late in the year, I discovered I was low on iron,” she said. “That happened before Zurich. I’m taking supplements right now.”
Though her game is built on skilful shotmaking, Hingis spent the latter phase of her pre-retirement career preoccupied about raising her level of fitness and power in order to compete with the big hitters. It’s remained a priority as she’s worked her way back into the game. “It’s no news for anybody, but I’ve understood that being physically in the top shape is the most important thing right now,” she said. “I’m lucky my shots were still there, so the physical part, that’s where I concentrated. I survived.”
In fact, Hingis has done better than just survive at the larger WTA events, winning a title in Rome and reaching finals in Tokyo and Montreal. She’s also won a smaller event in Kolkata. “I became confident that I could play at the same level as the top players when I beat [Maria] Sharapova in Tokyo [in February],” said Hingis.
But she’s disappointed with her performances at the very biggest events. “So far, the year has had good and bad points. I’ve never dreamed I would become top ten again, but I feel I could have done better at the Grand Slams,” she said.
Hingis clearly wants more, but can she overcome the very best to get there? Though she’s defeated Sharapova and other top Russians, Hingis has struggled against the likes of Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo. Her only first-round loss this year came in January when she drew top seed Justine Henin-Hardenne in the first round.
Even as she talked about exceeding her expectations for the year, Hingis betrayed some continuing insecurity about facing the big names. “The greatest thing of where I am right now is that I can avoid the tough draws,” Hingis said. “No more Sydneys, please.”
Off court, however, she’s found it easy to get back in the swing of things. “The locker room hasn’t changed much if I compare it to the first part of my career, apart from having more Russians and less Americans. We always move in groups, talk to each other,” Hingis said.
She laughed as she added, “The difference is that I used to be the youngest of the group, now I’m one of the oldest.”
Hingis is in Madrid this week with boyfriend and fellow tour player Radek Stepanek.
Never one to hold back when answering questions, she had a typically mischievous response when asked about the male models who will be acting as ball boys (not to mention conversation pieces) during the week. “Radek is here, so he won’t let me watch the ball boys. But he’s played in Madrid in the past, so it’s my turn.”