Prime time for Hingis' tennis tour revival
Grand Slam singles titles:
Five (1997-99 Australian Open, 1997 Wimbledon, 1997 U.S. Open).
Turns pro two weeks after her 14th birthday (she was born Sept. 30, 1980).
"Life wasn't as fulfilled as it was with tennis. After two or three months I got bored because it's not the kind of life I expected. I thought it was going to be so cool, so great, party, this and that. Then you go back home and what's the big deal?"
-- Martina Hingis, on retiring in 2002
- Wins the 1997 Australian Open to become youngest Grand Slam champion (16 years, 3 months) in 20th century. Later that year, wins Wimbledon to become youngest All-England Club champ in the Open era (since 1968).
- A loss to Iva Majoli in the French Open final prevents a calendar-year Grand Slam in 1997.
- Has first of two ankle surgeries in May 2001. Loses to Elena Dementieva in October 2002 shortly after her 22nd birthday. Announces a few months later she is taking an indefinite break from the game.
A lot of these young girls, they don't even know what the game is about," a more tennis-seasoned Hingis says. "They have never seen a drop shot, a slice and all the mixture and variety I have."
By Douglas Robson, special for USA TODAY
Months before Martina Hingis decided to end her three-year layoff and return to the tennis tour, Justine Henin-Hardenne sensed something percolating inside the former No. 1 from Switzerland.
Practicing last spring at Henin-Hardenne's U.S. training base in Saddlebrook, Fla., Hingis insisted they "toss" to decide who would serve first — a formality less-earnest players might let slide for a friendly match.
"I almost never saw a competitor like her," says the third-ranked Henin-Hardenne, smiling at the memory.
A decent chunk of the women's tour hasn't, either. After three months of impressive results, they are quickly discovering why Hingis owns five Grand Slam titles and held the top ranking for 209 weeks — fourth all time — and why she's back to play a full schedule now that her health is better.
"It's another chance so I don't have any regrets," says Hingis, whose career was cut short by persistent foot and ankle injuries in 2002. "I'm still young at 25. It's not 18 anymore, but it's not 30, either."
Other players have tried comebacks after significant layoffs, but few have been able to reach the winner's circle at majors. That is the key test for Hingis, the youngest No. 1 in WTA history (16 years, 6 months) and a prodigy at every step of her career.
Since returning to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour in January, Hingis has reached at least the quarterfinals in six of eight tournaments, including the Australian Open.
Up to 25th in the rankings and tied for second in wins with a 21-8 record, Hingis has beaten recent Grand Slam champions Maria Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
At March's Pacific Life Open, her first tournament in the USA, the Slovak-born Swiss beat Lindsay Davenport on her way to the semifinals. It was her second win against a top-five player.
Hingis insists she wouldn't have come back if she didn't believe she could be a top-10 player and challenge for Grand Slam titles.
"All the other girls — on a good day I can beat them," she says.
Playing a level higher
Hingis' return from retirement has been captivating for other reasons. Because of the usual lineup of injuries affecting top players, including Venus and Serena Williams (out since January's Australian Open), a window of opportunity has widened.
Hingis' return also adds a spicy twist to the hackneyed story of onetime champion on the comeback trail. At 25, she is still within her tennis prime.
Although Hingis has yet to win a title, her results have startled many who questioned whether the 5-7, 130-pounder could deal with the new generation of power players.
"To be honest, I didn't think it's going to go that fast for her, to climb up the rankings and all this," says fellow Swiss Roger Federer, the top-ranked male. "I thought she might crack top 30 at the end of the year. Here we are probably thinking she has a shot at winning a Slam. It's quite incredible."
Even if the odds are against her, opponents say Hingis is still able to do the things that made her so tough before she left the circuit. She redirects deep drives, plays great defensive tennis and puts opponents on the run. It creates panic for players who realize they can't just hit through her.
"She really makes you go for a lot and think about shots," Davenport says.
"A lot of it has to do with her seeing the ball early, and she knows what you're going to do," adds 2004 Wimbledon champ Sharapova, who has played Hingis three times since her return, winning twice.
On court, the wicked little grin still occasionally creeps across her face as Hingis feathers a drop shot or whacks a backhand down the line. The cocksure gait is intact. Court sense and the ability to disrupt opponents with her guile, speed and clever angles remain at her disposal.
"A lot of these young girls, they don't even know what the game is about," Hingis says. "They have never seen a drop shot, a slice and all the mixture and variety I have."
Concedes 2004 French Open champion Myskina, who lost to Hingis in Dubai in March, "She plays a lot smarter than me."
But Hingis hasn't been able to string together consecutive big wins, often losing badly after major upsets. Hingis managed to win just two games against Russia's Elena Dementieva in the Tokyo final after upsetting Sharapova in the semifinals.
Almost self-aware to a fault, Hingis, who will next play May 1 in Poland, admits she is still building the stamina she'll need for major championships.
"That's always the biggest question," she says. "Physically and mentally, can you last that long? At a Grand Slam you have to beat at least three top players from the quarters on."
Tactically, she's also aware the bigger, stronger, more physically fit women today demand changes in her own strategy.
As with many high-performing athletes, Hingis found life away from the arena less than compelling.
An accomplished horsewoman, Hingis competed in show jumping competitions, took math and German classes, went skiing and stayed out late. She figured out how to do the laundry and mow the lawn at her home in the Zurich suburbs.
With little structure in her life, she would wake up Monday morning and wonder, What now?
"Life wasn't as fulfilled as it was with tennis," she says. "After two or three months I got bored because it's not the kind of life I expected. I thought it was going to be so cool, so great, party, this and that. Then you go back home and what's the big deal?"
Hingis first dabbled in a comeback more than a year ago when she played an event in Thailand. She lost in three sets to unheralded Marlene Weingartner of Germany, a setback to her plans. She also played World TeamTennis. Ultimately, the urge to return was too overpowering.
In a late November meeting in Zurich with her mother and agents, Hingis announced she was ready to try again. She spent five weeks training before kicking off her comeback in Australia.
"I realized that sport was the one thing that always drove me," she says. "Playing in front of the stadium, like in Australia, when it's packed and playing in front of 14,000, 15,000 people, gives you so much more than hanging out with your friends and partying."
If her game hasn't exactly changed, Hingis has. Few will forget the young Hingis for her boorish meltdown at the French Open final in 1999. A teary Hingis had to be coaxed back onto the court by her mother for the trophy ceremony after imploding against Steffi Graf.
Hingis also ungraciously described openly lesbian Amelie Mauresmo as "half a man" before beating her in the 1999 Australian Open final.
Being away from the game has allowed Hingis to expand her horizons and see the sport not as a win-or-fail proposition. It allowed her to become an adult.
"Sometimes, you're 17, 18, a teenager, you do things you're not supposed to do," Hingis says. "I have a new perspective. When I was 16, I was just tunnel vision. My mom was always there for me, and I never knew anything else. Life outside of tennis didn't really exist."
If sometimes the pleasure for Hingis — once dubbed the Smiling Assassin — seemed more in the artful dismembering of opponents than in the joy of playing, this time, she is playing for her own personal satisfaction.
"Now she plays for herself and I am here to support her," says Hingis' mother, Melanie Molitor, who remains coach, confidante and best friend but is assuming a more backseat role. "I am just her helper."
Fan appeal remains
If her first three months on tour are any indication, the game has not passed Hingis by. Perhaps more than ever, there is a place in the game for someone whose strengths don't consist of repetitive, percussive swings from the baseline.
"Power tennis? I don't think too much about it," Hingis says. "That's why Roger (Federer) dominates that game so well. Because the rest is just all power and serves and they always have one deficit. He has an all-around game."
For women's tennis, Hingis' return has been an all-around positive. Davenport, Mary Pierce and Serena and Venus Williams have been sidelined with injuries, and Hingis has been a major draw at every tournament since her return.
Hingis refuses to peg a number to success, saying she has her goals but they are not for public consumption. Real accomplishment, she contends, has a look everyone recognizes.
Is it the devilish smile she is so famous for?
"You'll know it," she says, "when you see it."