Swiss Miss conquers her fears
By Mark Hodgkinson
Last Updated: 2:30am GMT
Mischief and self-confidence have always been the Martina Hingis way
, and so you half expected her to come back from a visit to Madrid's Prado Museum and casually remark that her childhood finger-paintings probably bear comparison with the work of Goya.
It was the Swiss Miss, of course, who once complained when she was moved from the penthouse suite of a hotel to make way for Bill Clinton that the then American president needed such a large room to accommodate all his women. And, then, in January this year, when she began what has been an impressive comeback season, she declared that she had been a little unimpressed with Maria Sharapova and wanted to take her on and "see what she's got".
So Hingis can be a wonderful provocateur, but, as she sat down to discuss a season in which she has gone from having no official ranking to yesterday reaching a year-end seventh in the world, she was in a thoughtful, reflective mood. She had marvelled at the Prado, and that was that, with no jokes about Goya. And Hingis, a former world No 1 and a five-time grand slam champion, also admitted for the first time that she had been extremely fearful about returning to the sport this year, three seasons after she had quit the circuit because of injuries.
"When I started out on the tour again I sometimes didn't always believe that I could do it. I had some serious doubts and fears about whether I could compete with the best again. I had to prove it to myself, as much as prove it to everyone else," she disclosed.
A little vulnerability from Hingis can be profoundly shocking, like the thought of Sharapova ever turning up to play in sackcloth and no make-up. The worry for Hingis had been that a run of poor results during her second coming would start to trash memories of all the great tennis she had produced during her "first career". The old Hingis, that little madam who was the youngest woman to top the rankings, would never have admitted to such self-doubt.
The honesty made Hingis, a throwback player at the grand old age of 26, all the more likeable. Hingis is a tennis clever-clogs, capable of great skill and artistry, but she was worried that she might suffer physically against the muscle on the tour, the big-hitters and the sluggers.
"I was never afraid of the game itself, the tennis. I always thought that I had the skill and the talent. It wasn't for no reason that I was No 1 for four years. I was never afraid of that factor.
"It's the physical part which is much more demanding today than what it used to be. That was my biggest fear when I first came back, that I wouldn't be able to survive the long matches," she said.
Hingis has done much more than just "survive". To have qualified for the season-closing Sony Ericsson Championships was a fantastic feat, as was ending the year in the top 10. Although Hingis never publicly admitted to her goals in January, those were two of them. "It's been a great year. It's what I was hoping for, to qualify for Madrid, and to make the top 10. When I got to Madrid I was thinking, 'Wow, I've achieved some of my dreams'," she said.
Highlights have included making the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and Roland Garros, and winning the Rome title. The only disappointment, she said, was going out of Wimbledon in the third round. Everywhere she went, she delighted in the affection she felt from the crowds. When Hingis was younger she never felt loved by the tennis public but now she does. Clearly everyone enjoys a bit of retro, and Hingis has also changed. In short, she has grown up. "I've been surprised at how well received I have been.
"It's totally different at all the tournaments now. When I was a teenager, people had a different view of me. I've had a warm reception everywhere I've been and that's been amazing. I've found it overwhelming everywhere I went, with people on my side. That's what I've come back for, for those moments when I've got the whole crowd cheering me on," she said.
Hingis is feeling happy and settled again. She does not miss the more settled life she had during her three-year break when she studied and did a little television commentary, but she still makes time to look after her five horses and see her "true friends" away from the circuit.
Hingis also started a new relationship this year, with Radek Stepanek. The Czech is himself a men's top-20 player but during the Madrid tournament he did not mind being the male, tennis-groupie equivalent of a WAG. Stepanek also worked as a free-of-charge hitting partner. Typical Hingis. She has her boyfriend just where she wants him.
For all her success this year, Hingis was not fully satisfied. "You always want more," she said. "I can always get more out of it next year. I think that I will be in a totally different position next year, as I will be in the top eight.
"Winning another grand slam? I'm back in the top 10, so there aren't that many players ahead of me, but there's a way to go. I would have to beat the best, but now I know that I can do that."