Worn-down Hingis fighting to regain success
Martina Hingis' vaunted comeback is so far in the rearview mirror now that her vision of regaining her much beloved No. 1 ranking has nearly faded to black.
"You always have to have hope and hope dies last," Hingis said in an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com.
Martina Hingis (right) hasn't been completely shut out in her second stint on the WTA Tour. She won the Qatar Open doubles title Saturday with Maria Kirilenko. (Shajahan / Associated Press)
The once-dominant Hingis is the third seed at this week's Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells, but there aren't too many folks who think she has a great chance to win the title — not when in the past 15 months, she's won all of three crowns and has posted a poor record against the top five.
The 26-year-old has scored plenty of impressive wins and is rarely routed, but still hasn't shown her once-steely ability to face down all comers with a mix of brains, slight-of-hand tactics and pure moxie.
Hingis' comeback, which is 15 months old, has already taken its toll as she had forgotten how much she began to dislike the daily grind of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour when she left completely burned out at the end of 2005.
"At this point, I'm trying to overcome the travel and other things and be fresh and ready to go," she said. "My strongest point has been to be concentrating at a high level and to be 100 percent healthy and that's so key to whether I'm on or off. That split second of being faster than the other and to be ready with my head is important."
The first stage of her career seems like another lifetime for Hingis. Between 1996 and 2000, when she won her five Grand Slam titles and enjoyed 209 weeks at No. 1, there wasn't a player out there who she couldn't figure out, couldn't speed past, couldn't put up a defensive wall against.
But now, there is a little confusion in her eyes when she talks about some of the other elite players like Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. She can't trick the other superstars like she used to, and she wears down in three-set matches.
Consequently, in the five Grand Slams she's played during her comeback, she has been unable to reach a semifinal.
Between 1996 and 2002, when she retired, she always reached at least one semifinal. In her second life, she's been shut out.
"It was one way of living," Hingis said. "I was very young when it all happened. Time has gone on. You can't be out for three years and think you are going to crush everybody again. It wouldn't be realistic for me. I don't have the size of Serena coming back and winning a Grand Slam. It's confidence and other things I can build up on. My biggest fear coming back was I wouldn't be able to survive the game. I have.
"Now I'm back in the top 10 and I've had some great matches against top players. And of course there's my drive where I want to beat them."
No one completely questions Hingis' desire, not when she climbed back to No. 6 in the rankings in a relatively short period of time. It's her staying power that's still up in the air. It's hard to imagine a once dominant player hanging on if she can't go to toe with the best, and Hingis has only shown brief glimpses that she can do so.
"If you know you do everything possible in practice and in matches, there's the possibility I can," she said. "I've beaten Maria, Nadia Petrova and Lindsay Davenport when she was No. 3."
But she's also lost to Sharapova twice, whose the No. 1 seed at Indian Wells, to Henin, and to Mauresmo.
Then there are other players, like Clijsters, who will retire at year's end, which is great news for Hingis, since the Belgian has beaten her in the quarterfinals of three of the five Grand Slams Hingis has contested during her comeback.
Hingis choked during their quarterfinal at the 2007 Australian Open, unable to push through Clijsters and losing another critical three-setter.
"I had her," Hingis said. "That was the best chance I had. I have to build on that and if I get into that position again, have no fear."
When Hingis first retired, she wasn't only burned out from playing, but homesick and ready for new mental and personal challenges. She likes having a partner around and isn't one to stay single for too long.
She's now engaged to Czech player Radek Stepanek. When they first became engaged last year, Stepanek was out with an injury and his days were filled with supporting his number one woman. Hingis loved that.
"He had a lot of time for me and I very much got used to that," she said with a laugh. "It's not only me any more. I wish it was like that. But it's nice to be able to support each other and have off-court time. He's (at tournaments) so it's not like you have to travel to the place where your heart is."
Hingis' heart may be in the right place off the court, but on-court she's still searching for her guts. She says she is committed to the grind, which is the only way she will eventually reap long-term results. But she has a distate for working out, which is not doing her any favors in matches that go beyond two hours.
Hingis' mother and coach Melanie has implored her to get in a little better shape, as has Stepanek.
"I'm not going to close myself in a cage for four weeks to do conditioning," Hingis said. "I wouldn't be able to hit a ball because I need the balance. In tennis you need to think and I've always been a thinker and love strategy. If I lose that and become too bulky, it wouldn't be good. I need to be more fluid. If I get too in-shape, I might start over-running the balls and that's not good either."
That sounds like a juicy justification, but Hingis knows herself better than anyone — except her mother, who sits courtside with her head in her hands when her prodigy loses.
"She says it's not my game that's the problem, it's the physical part," Hingis said. "It's always the same thing that I have to win in straight sets if I want to beat them. Radek says you have the game, that's not it. It's lasting a little bit longer, (winning) a few extra points. But its not just falling into my hands."
And it won't any time in the future. Hingis is still a legend and when her foes get on court, they go big-game hunting. Whether she can avoid the arrows will decide whether she has a long-term future on tour.
"I'm back in the position where I used to be," she said. "Everyone hunts the top 10 because they know it's the last station and it brings out the best in them. But I'm looking forward to the challenge."