Hingis Future Murky
By Matthew Cronin
If Martina Hingis decides to retire prematurely this winter, it would be the biggest blow to women's tennis since Gabriela Sabatini retired prematurely at age 26 in 1996.
Hingis means a lot to her sport: She still is one of the game's top thinkers; she's unquestionably the most insightful analysts among the elite; she's proved with her five Slam titles that size doesn't always have to matter; she has great rivalries with the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, four of the five best players out there (with Amelie Mauresmo elbowing in at No. 3).
On Friday, Hingis announced in Zurich that she has withdrawn from tournament play for the rest of the year, saying that she came back prematurely from ankle surgery and needed to "free my mind." It's been pretty obvious since she came back in mid-August at the Canadian Open that she's nowhere near the player who should have won her fourth Australian Open title in January when she let go of four match points against Capriati. She's slow, she has little depth on her shots and has almost no confidence. As well as Elena Dementieva can play when she's healthy and focused (which she hasn't been often this year), she is not in Hingis' class yet. So when Martina walked off the court in Filderstadt, Germany, on Thursday, after being blown out 6-3, 6-1 by the Russian, it was pretty clear that she was in a tailspin.
"I am not playing at the level I would like to play and I don't want to play in front of my fans like this," Hingis said. "Maybe I came back too early after my surgery." Hingis underwent the surgeon's knife on May 20 to repair one torn ligament and three loose ligaments on her left ankle.
The Swiss went on to tell Reuters that "This created a downward spiral ... in a sport where spirit and self-confidence are very important. I decided I need some time to clear my head."
Hingis said that she has no idea when she's going to try to play again, saying that she'd discuss the matter with her doctor, her mother and coach, Melanie, and her mother's boyfriend and her manager, Mario Widmer. "I have not decided on a definite comeback. That remains to be seen as I have set myself no dates at this point," she said.
ANNA ALSO RETURNED TOO QUICKLY
Interestingly, Hingis' frequent doubles partner, Anna Kournikova, made the same mistake last year, coming back from surgery way soon (ironically she also returned in August) and got beat up pretty bad as a result. It took Kournikova nearly a year to right her ship after that rushed decision and the same fate could await Hingis, who like Kournikova is very dependent on her footwork and athleticism to be successful
Like Anna, Martina has been playing year-round at a high level since she was in middle school (or at least being tutored at home by a junior high instructor). Her legs are rejecting the thousands of miles she has run on court and are giving her brain a clear message that she needs to reduce her schedule and change her training regimen.
Sadly, Hingis' body is breaking down earlier than expected. She's only 22 and already has two bum ankles. Steffi Graf didn't start to really physically deteriorate until she was 27, while the 28-year-old Monica Seles' notoriously sore feet didn't start to hamper her until she was 24.
MOVEMENT IS THE KEY
However, there's major difference between Hingis and the two-aforementioned all time greats: Hingis cannot use power to make up for her lack of movement. Therefore, if she loses a step – a la Michael Chang – she'll never win a Slam again. Sure, she could change tactics and come to net more to employ her wonderful volley, but she has to get there first, and we all know that she doesn't serve hard enough to give herself a chance to come in often and is too short to stretch enough for well-struck passing shots to give herself a dominant net game in singles.
Five years ago, when Hingis first became No. 1, the Williamses were still immature players, Davenport and Mauresmo hadn't peaked yet, Capriati was AWOL, and Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Daniela Hantuchova were still stealing glances at the Teletubbies. Now when Hingis walks on court, she's feels like General Custer in his final moments.
"It was slower," Hingis said of the sport in 1997. "You had more time to think where you gonna hit the shot. Today you have to react so fast, it's so much speedier. Sometimes it's like, 'Okay, wait a minute. I need to think where I'm gonna hit the next shot.' Sometimes you just got to hit it back fast, that's the difference. You don't even think sometimes, just hit it back as hard and fast as you can, give the opponents less time."
Hingis is the youngest ever player to hold the No. 1 ranking – a place she held for a total of 209 career weeks on and off between March 1997 and October 2001. She's fourth on the all-time list behind Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in weeks ranked at the top. Back in 2001, she thought she had a shot at Chris's mark of 262 weeks, but now that seems like a pipe dream.
As she said after she was waxed by Seles (a player she once owned) at the US Open, she has to do "everything. Endurance and do a lot of cardio. ... The mental part is the least I'm thinking about right now. If you have the rest of the game, the mental part will come automatically."
But the rest of the game didn't come this fall and unless her doctor and trainer find the right cure for what ails her ankles, it may never arrive. Now there is a very good chance that the girl who was called by many the smartest player ever may never win another Slam, never get back into the top 10, never even contend for another major title. Given how much richness she has brought to the sport, that would be very tragic indeed.