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hingis-seles
Dec 27th, 2002, 08:21 AM
Hingis left in wilderness as power game rules world

Former world No 1 tries to develop strength and endurance as taller, stronger generation of players change face of women's game

By John Roberts 19 October 2002

One of the differences between Martina Hingis and her erstwhile beau Sergio Garcia is that when the golfer plays a shot his ball is not returned by one of the Williams sisters.

Serena Williams, the muscular world No 1, makes the point that she and Venus, her older, taller sibling, dominate women's tennis because they have finesse as well as power. Regrettably for the aesthetic appeal of the sport at large, Hingis lacks the power to capitalise on unrivalled finesse.

This is particularly evident in terms of Hingis' serve, which, while not a Gabriela Sabatini powder-puff, is limp enough to be punished so severely that her back-up skills become redundant. Her fastest delivery this year was only 104 mph.

While Serena Williams, who has eclipsed Venus as well as everybody else, talks about the possibility of a "Serena Slam" by adding next January's Australian Open to the singles titles she won this year at the French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open, Hingis licks her wounds.

Hingis, having ended her season early to consider the implications of her depressing form since undergoing surgery to her left ankle in May, is not even certain to compete in Australia.

Formerly the brightest young thing to grace the courts, the 22-year-old Hingis is currently ranked No 11 in the world and has been unable to add to her five Grand Slam singles titles since winning the 1999 Australian Open, although she held four match points against Jennifer Capriati in this year's final before wilting in the Melbourne heat.

Capriati, a born-again heroine in 2001 after winning her first Grand Slam singles titles in Australia and France, became so stressed this season when expected to curb the Williams sisters in the absence of Hingis and Lindsay Davenport, another injured former world No 1, that she declared she was "taking the pressure off" and would simply play for herself.

Speed of serve alone does not a champion make, otherwise Elena Baltacha, the British No 1, who hit the fourth fastest delivery on the WTA Tour last year – 118mph at Wimbledon – and is currently fourth in the list again this season (116mph at Wimbledon) would rank higher than No 154 in the world.

But the concussive power generated by the strong, athletic Williams sisters on virtually every shot – serve, return and groundstroke – from the first point to the last, is all-consuming. Most opponents pray for for them to miss the lines or hit the net.

As Hingis says: "Four of five years ago the game was slower. You had more time to think where you were going to hit the shot. Today you have to react so fast, it's so much speedier. Sometimes it's like, 'OK, wait a minute. I need to think where I'm going hit the next shot.' Sometimes you've just got to hit it back fast. That is the difference. You don't even think, just hit it back as hard and as fast as you can to give the opponents less time."

Hingis knows that her opponents do not have to think twice before returning her serve. "Even like a year ago I was hitting harder serves than I am today," she says, "so I have got to think about what I have been doing there. I had serves over 100 miles an hour in the past. I've got to be more consistent there. I definitely have to work on my all-round game: the serve, speed – everything."

How much has sheer power taken away from the construction of points? "The first two, three shots, maybe that's just like hitting hard, through the middle or just not too close to the lines," Hingis says. "Once you manage that, then you can start playing more angles. That's always been part of the men's game. That's where the women's game is moving towards, because now it's more physical."

Hingis grew up admiring the pace and determination of Monica Seles, whose two-handed grip on the game was loosened not by an opponent but by a deranged spectator who stabbed her in the back in 1993. Seles, who is due to mark her 29th birthday on 2 December, continues to make an impression on younger rivals. She defeated Hingis in straight sets in the quarter-finals of the United States Open last month and ensured that the Williams family could not win all four majors by eliminating Venus in three sets in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.

Seles, a strong link in the recent history of the women's game, having overtaken Steffi Graf, who ended the era of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, is well placed to judge the evolution of the sport. "The game has changed," Seles says. "The game went through a very stagnant period from '93 to '96 I think. In '97 the girls started to get bigger, stronger, faster. You see the girls now are six feet tall. Everyone has a 100mph serve."



In 1997 Hingis became the youngest player to hold a No 1 ranking (16 years, six months and one day). Richard Williams, who predicted that his daughters would rule the game, said Hingis' legs were too short for her to stop them.

Venus Williams was rather more analytical. "When Martina came on the scene people had a tough time figuring out her game, and that gave her a lot of success," Venus said after becoming the first of the sisters to reach No 1 this year. "I think Martina came in at a great time. Steffi was injured, and the top player at that point was maybe Arantxa [Sanchez-Vicario]. Lindsay [Davenport] was still developing. I was in high school. But I think when Martina capitalised on her game that was a great time."

"Whoever is at the top has got to be the best player at that time," Hingis says. "So at this point it's Serena, Venus and Jennifer. I always had great respect for Jennifer's knowledge of the game, and the sisters have learned a lot.

"I think Venus is the more handy player. She's got more skills than Serena, but Serena is more consistent, more precise. Her technique is more defined, I'd say, than Venus'. That's probably because Venus has a better hand."

While Hingis considers ways to improve her strength and endurance, Seles concentrates on longevity and enjoying what remains of her professional career. "I'm always being asked when I'm going to retire," she says.

"It's a constant question. I've seen it with Andre Agassi and I've seen it with Pete Sampras. I do believe tennis is a young person's game, the younger the better: there's more attention, more sponsors and all that stuff.

"In other sports you can peak later on in your life, till 30, 33. Because we start so young, it depends how long we want to stay focused. In tennis you have no off-season. It's very different. How long are you willing to sacrifice that stuff?

"I'm going to play competitively as long as I enjoy it, as long as my body lets me play. But I do know one thing, that I'll play tennis for ever, really, because I love the sport. I don't view it as retiring, because that's retiring from something you never will do again. That won't be in my case with tennis."

More power to Monica's elbow. And Martina's.