Even the most optimistic of Martina Hingis’s fans have been shaking their heads in disbelief. Just seven weeks into her comeback after a three-year break from tennis, the 25-year-old Swiss is competing again with some of the world’s very best. Her world ranking has surged to 44 and is set to rise.
“It feels like being a rookie again,” said the former world number one at the Dubai Tennis Championships last week. where she won through to the quarter-finals. ““I’ve played some pretty good matches so far this season.”But a new tournament always means a new situation and a new preparation.”
It was back in 2003, aged just 22 and with 14 major titles under her belt (five singles, nine doubles) that Hingis first announced her retirement after ankle and foot injuries. She briefly dipped her toes back in the water in February 2005 at a tournament in Thailand, resulting in a humiliating first-round loss, but it was not until January this year that she fully submerged herself again in the women’s tour.
She has since reached one final; played in two semi-finals; beaten six players in the top 30 including one in the top five; and won the Australian mixed doubles title. So far the many observers who suspected that, second-time round, she would not be able to compete with the sport’s new breed of muscle-bound power-hitters, have been confounded, though they will await the year’s remaining three grand slam tournaments for final judgment.
As before, Hingis’s game relies more on tactics and guile than brute strength. A host of taller players with a much fiercer shot – including Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anastasia Myskina and Maria Sharapova, former US, French and Wimbledon champions respectively – has already been outfoxed by her skills. For her second bite of the cherry, it seems Hingis comes armed with slightly sharper teeth.
“I don’t think it’s a new Martina. It’s still me,” she says. “But I have a different body than when I was 18. I’m more solid, more compact. I’m using different methods now, different forces.”
Her intention, she explains, is to take the power that her opponents
generate and to return it across the net with added interest. “I’ve always pretty much been a counter-puncher. What I do is use their pace and their force. I can hold my body compactly.
I bend my knees and go forward into the ball.
“When I was a child, if [my opponent] hit the ball hard, my wrist would turn over. But now I’m stronger and I can hold it. I play a little different to most of the girls. Hopefully I can still prove that girls my size and girls with skills can come through.”
Whether she can come through to the same level as during the first part of her career remains to be seen. For six years, Hingis totally dominated women’s tennis. In 1996, aged 15, she became the youngest player in the sport’s history to win a major title when she secured the women’s doubles at Wimbledon. A year later she was the youngest ever to be ranked world number one. Over the next six seasons she amassed 40 singles titles and 36 doubles. The prize money piled up beyond £10m.
As for attaining the heights again, there are precedents – Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles won majors after lengthy breaks from the game. But it is a tall order – and Hingis knows it. “Of course Jennifer was 16 when she stopped and 20 when she came back,” she admits. “It’s a different story with me being 25.”
One factor that Nevertheless, her maturity may work in her favour. is her maturity. The tears and tantrums, such as when she lost the 1999 French Open final to Steffi Graf, are long
gone. “I think I’ve learnt a lot from
the last three years,” she says. “I can build on that. I have nothing to prove any more. I just go out there and enjoy my tennis.”
During her time away she was active in diverse fields. There was some tennis commentating, she learnt English at college and work she did with her clothing sponsor helped to develop younger players. There were romantic liaisons with golfer Sergio Garcia and footballer Sol Campbell. She even tried her hand at competitive showjumping. But none of this replaced the thrill of combat on court. Ultimately that was what lured her back to the game.
The Swiss Miss was certainly missed. Tournament directors are now clambering over one another to sign her up for their events. And even her first-round matches are commanding large live audiences.
“Maybe when I wasn’t around any more, all of a sudden people realised that something was missing in the women’s game,” she says. “Now I’m bringing it back again.”
But she will have to be cautious if she is to avoid falling into an injury trap once more. “I’m not doing too much running and bouncing around,” she says of her new training regime. “The only time, pretty much, I run around is on the court. The rest is on the bike or low-impact things.”
She will also try to keep her weight down so as to reduce the strain on her lower limbs. “I think that’s the key to avoiding injury. Every player has to know their body well.”
The role of coach is, as before, filled by her mother Melanie Molitor. In times past, relations between parent and daughter have been turbulent, but Hingis stresses that things are now more harmonious.
“We don’t fight as much any more,” she reveals. “We respect each other very much on the court. I know that she’s the person for me and she knows me inside out.”
The plan now is to raise Hingis’s ranking high enough for her to be seeded at tournaments. “If you make yourself at least top 15 you’re going
to be seeded so you don’t have to
play someone like [Amélie] Mauresmo, [Justine] Henin or Sharapova early on. It’s nice to have a couple of easy rounds against lower-ranked players. That’s the goal right now and I think that’s realistic.”
Many of Hingis’s female rivals believe she will reach the top 20 by the summer. And some male professionals have joined in the chorus of compliments about her comeback.
Roger Federer, her compatriot and world number one, whose own success was a factor in her decision to play again, is highly impressed.
“After seeing her play, I have no doubt she will be very highly ranked at the end of the year,” he said last week. “To be honest, I was a little surprised at how well she’s actually playing
It shows what a great competitor she is. I don’t know if it’s going to be enough to win the big tournaments but I think she’s right up there. She could upset anybody.”