Back where she belongs

MARTINA Hingis, full of subtlety and dazzling strokeplay showed a remarkable sense of occasion by not losing a set in the first three rounds, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

With an inexhaustible capacity for a cunning shot and a frank word, Martina Hingis spent a career stealing headlines and wearing greatness with an almost haughty ease. After three years of hibernation little appears changed: Hingis is again filling stadiums and packing out press conferences.

How far into the Open her comeback will last, how long into the year she will maintain her form, is almost irrelevant right now. What is astounding is the effrontery with which she grabbed attention in the first week of the Australian Open.

In her first three rounds, Hingis never lost a set, never even got pushed beyond a 6-4 scoreline, winning four of her six sets 6-1. Admittedly none of her opponents carries a hefty reputation (and possibly were daunted by her's), but successive wins over Vera Zvonereva (world No. 29), Emma Laine (No. 85) and Iveta Benesova (No. 42), who had sent Mary Pierce home, showed off her remarkable sense of occasion.

Hingis' game is different, and it isn't. Her serve has an extra kilo or two of muscle attached to it, her groundstrokes a trifle more weighty, but at five foot, seven inches she prefers subtlety to strength and her stroke production continues to dazzle.

But her acceleration around the court is far from Ferrari, and already one men's player has quietly whispered in this writer's ear that her run through the first week was reflective of the absence of depth on the women's circuit. This, he said, would never happen on the men's tour.

Sport scarcely stands still and the women's tour has not, Hingis herself asserting the game is more relentless, adding: "Everyone is in much better shape than when I left the game. You could already tell that it was coming, but it has arrived now.''

What is mostly accepted is that while the ladies are fitter, faster, stronger, sterner down the rankings than before, as a whole the men's tour reaches deeper, the No. 100 player carrying more of a threat.

But none of that should detract from Hingis' performances. While the men run, bash, run, bash, all triumphant testosterone, Hingis often plays jazz. Rarely in the men's draw (Federer and Santoro are the exceptions) is tennis so sublimely articulated.

GIANT-KILLING ACT

Tennis is a demandingmistress and the Williams cannot expect to win after showing up overweight and unprepared.

On the night after she had held her game and nerve together to oust Serena Williams, Daniela Hantuchova, who owns as much muscle as a pipe cleaner, was asked what it was like to beat one of the all-time greats in women's tennis.

Some may have blinked. For all Serena's power and presence, and brief streak of genius some years ago when she won four Slams in a row, not everyone is convinced she belongs in the rarefied company of Margaret Court (24 Grand Slam singles titles), Chris Evert (18), Martina Navratilova (18), and Steffi Graf (22).

For this writer, Monica Seles (nine Slams) makes that list, too, at her peak dominating by winning 8 of 12 Slams between 1990-93. Much like Maureen Connolly, who won the Grand Slam in 1953 but suffered a horse-riding accident that crushed her leg in 1954, Seles' prime was interrupted by a knife-wielding fan and she was never the same player. If you consider Graf's place in history, and the fact that Seles had her measure, it suggests how far the delightful Yugoslav-American might have gone.

Women's tennis has substantially altered since Evert-Navratilova, the competition is harder, the seasons more gruelling, the injuries more constant, and it is unlikely players will collect Slams in the numbers they once did. That said, Serena's seven so far (Venus has five) is not persuasive enough evidence of all-time greatness. She has ended the year ranked No.1 only once, in 2002, but her dominance has hiccupped since. Serena has won only one of the past 10 Slams, Venus one of the past 17. The Williams must be congratulated for seeking a life outside tennis and looking to explore different facets of their personalities. In an era of automatons, they are truly colourful characters. But tennis is a demanding mistress and the Williams cannot expect to win after showing up overweight and unprepared, or sometimes not showing up at all. They understandably want the best of both worlds, but they are not quite the best in this world.

HEWITT SHORN OF CONFIDENCE?

LIKE SOME CRICKETERS, Hewitt wants his home pitch doctored.-AP

For Lleyton Hewitt the home advantage of playing in his own country, where the weather is no stranger to him, buoyed by a crowd that swears by him, is evidently not enough. Like some cricketers, he wants his home pitch doctored as well.

Last year, the sometimes irascible Australian and his crew expressed their displeasure with the Melbourne Park Rebound Ace courts, suggesting they should be quickened, for it would add menace to his game which is built less on muscle and more on consistency. Hewitt's continuing fury was evident during his loss to Juan Ignacio Chela this year when he reportedly screamed during the match "fix the courts". While Hewitt may have a point that the new balls used this year, Wilson instead of Slazenger, are fluffier and seem to slow the action down further, his assertion that "Mate, it (the courts) could be slower than French Open" will take some digesting.

But the courts issue only distracts from Hewitt's, even if temporary, slide. Understandably, he, a former world No.1 and Wimbledon and US Open champion, had injuries last year, and missed the Masters Cup because of the arrival of his daughter, Mia, but right through the summer, where he suffered early round losses in Adelaide and Sydney in warm-up tournaments as well, his game has seemed strangely unreliable.

He appears a player somewhat shorn of confidence, unsure still whether to just stay tough from the baseline or lace his game with a greater aggression like John Newcombe suggests, or mix it up as Pat Rafter had advised. Bereft of power, Hewitt has not just survived but stayed near the top because he has pugnaciousness sewn into his soul. But how long can he run, how long can he fight?