Hingis tries toughest of returns

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The Australian Open, which because it is held in mid-January, just two weeks into the new tennis season, is often as noteworthy for the list of absentees as it is for the players on show in Melbourne. But any withdrawals from the 2006 edition, which begins on January 16, will be more than compensated for by the expected participation of Martina Hingis, who is taking up her racket again after three years in retirement.

For women’s tennis, suddenly in a rut, the return of the former world number one is the best Christmas gift imaginable. Yet there is good reason to wonder whether the sport will be any kinder to the 25-year-old Hingis now than it was in the months preceding her departure.

She retired in 2003, ostensibly because of injuries. But there seems little doubt that her decision was also prompted by frustration. Hingis had claimed the number one ranking at the absurdly precocious age of 16 and had captured five grand-slam titles by her 19th birthday. But in the three years that followed, several players – Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati – found the court savvy to accompany their vastly superior power, and the diminutive Hingis, though one of the shrewdest tacticians the women’s game had ever seen, found herself being blasted off the court by bigger, stronger rivals.

Nowhere was this reversal more apparent than at the Australian. Hingis won it in 1997, 1998 and 1999. But the next year, she was crushed in the final by Davenport. In 2001, she again reached the title match, only to fall victim to Capriati’s concussive strokes. Capriati and Hingis had a return engagement the following year, and the result was perhaps the worst loss in Hingis’s career. She squandered a 6-4 4-0 lead and four championship points en route to a devastating loss that saw the Swiss star dissolve in a puddle of tears.

It was a match that perfectly mirrored the arc of her career – she started confidently, found it increasingly difficult to handle the pace being generated on the other side of the net, and finally just collapsed.

Forgetting that nightmare is only one of the challenges now facing Hingis. Tennis is not a sport that produces many comebacks; top players seem to have an uncanny ability to recognise when it is time to quit. Martina Navratilova has come off the sidelines to play doubles, but she is very much an anomaly. Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander – all are legends of the Open era, and all retired for good almost as soon as they felt no longer able to compete for major titles.

Indeed, the only player in the Open era to have arguably retired too soon was Bjorn Borg, who quit at 26. But with 11 grand-slam titles to his credit, it can hardly be said that he failed to fulfil his potential. For Hingis, the better analogy may be with the man who drove Borg into retirement, John McEnroe – who, as it happens, recently announced his return to doubles, aged 46. McEnroe, whose game was all about finesse, was the dominant player in the early 1980s. But it was also early that decade that wood rackets became extinct, replaced by metal and composite ones.

The new equipment changed the balance of power in men’s tennis by enabling players to strike the ball with much greater power. McEnroe still had his vaunted finesse, but it was no longer as effective against hard-hitting opponents such as Lendl. When Becker, then a 17-year-old man-child, blasted his way to the Wimbledon crown in 1985, the writing was on the grass, you might say. Perhaps fleeing the inevitable, McEnroe took a six-month sabbatical in 1986, then another between 1987 and 1988. By the time he decided to get serious again about tennis, the game had all but passed him by.

Hingis may be about to experience something similar. True, she has timed
her return impeccably:
with Davenport nearing retirement, Justine Henin-
Hardenne and Capriati battling health issues, and the Williams sisters suffering from what looks to be terminal ennui, women’s tennis is a mess at present. If nothing else, Hingis’s comeback, which officially begins this weekend at the Australian Women’s Hardcourts tournament, will spark some renewed interest in a tour that has lately tested the patience of even loyal fans.

But while there is little doubt that Hingis will be every bit as fit and full of guile as she was three years ago, the women’s game has, if anything, become even more of a grip-it-and-rip-it affair since then. Unless she has found a more effective way of blunting the power game, or has developed the ability to play it herself, it is hard to imagine the sequel having a happier ending than the original.

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