HINGIS SHOWS UP WOMEN'S TENNIS

MARTINA HINGIS is forcing players into unfamiliar territory and their erratic response is in some ways an indictment of modern coaching, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Talent has no particular geography, it emerges abruptly almost every day on universal fields, in varying size and different colour, all vigorous youth and purity of effort. The gifted are always beautiful.

But only occasionally a player does more than merely dazzle and energise a sport. They go further. They force us to re-examine our estimation of a sport, their provocative play challenges every pre-conceived notion we have carefully constructed.

Is this genius? Martina Hingis, who wears the smile of the cocky, would just grin and say that sounds about right.

With every match Hingis plays the more she confounds us. She was too small, we said, and last week at Indian Wells she manhandled Lindsay Davenport (admittedly with back problems) close to twice her size. She was too old, we said, as she routinely eviscerates her peers with surgical precision. She cannot keep up with a sport she abandoned for three years, we said, as she in three months has sprung up the ranking ladder from obscurity to No. 32.

It's too late, but we should have known better than to question this toothy, artistic David in skirts.

Hingis was smart, we knew that, her tennis better measured in IQ points than kilometres per hour, in whose hands tennis became less athletic enterprise and more intellectual exercise.

But once she quit, the door appeared closed, for sport is rarely indulgent, in a world of motion there is little time for standing still. Injuries will halt players and they may return, even a year later, perhaps more, and occasionally recapture their best.

But three years? A small athlete? In a game we claimed was a few kilometres faster per year?

Perhaps many of us were just plain wrong. Not just how quickly Hingis could re-find her game. But, almost more importantly, how far we thought the women's game had moved, both in strength and in depth.

None of what Hingis has done makes sense. Surely muscles left alone must atrophy, the edge that distinguishes great champions get lost, the absence of match play dull stroke production.

It is almost absurd that a player busy riding horses can return and in six tournaments reach the semi-finals, first round, quarter-finals, final, quarter-finals and semi-finals (and at the time of writing she went out in the semi-finals of Indian Wells).

It's unthinkable that after about 36 months without authentic competition, unsure if her injured feet would survive the test, she's reeled off wins (till her Davenport match) against 12 players in the top 50 ranking (at the time when she played them), including No. 5 Maria Sharapova, No. 12 Anastasia Myskina, No. 11 Francesca Schiavone, No. 14 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 4 Lindsay Davenport.

After her loss to Flavia Penetta, world No. 23 in her first tournament back, her only defeats have been to Justine Henin-Hardenne (No. 8 then), Kim Clijsters (No. 2), Elena Dementieva (No. 9), Sharapova (No. 5) and Amelie Mauresmo (No. 2). Only the best have her measure. So far.

Part of Hingis' success arrives from her game, not merely in its cleverness, but in its difference. Tennis, for a while, for both sexes, has owned a sense of clones at work, with more variety to be had at an Elvis look-alike convention.

Most girls play from similar song sheets, pounding out a constant percussive rhythm, all topspin tyros, Sisters of the Same Shot, believing subtlety is for sissies.

But Hingis forces players to do the one thing they'd often rather not. Think. It's the word even Davenport used, who said: "She really makes you go for a lot, and think about shots."

Confronting Hingis is somewhat like arriving for an examination and discovering the questions posed weren't part of your syllabus and there's no one to complain to. No one is supposed to play like this. She's forcing players into unfamiliar territory and their erratic response is in some ways an indictment of modern coaching.

Hingis may not change women's tennis (though she's a fair lesson to someone like Sania Mirza to add a little embroidery to her bulldozer style), but she's shown up women's tennis, or at least posed questions. Perhaps the depth was over-rated, the method isn't that strong, the power hasn't gone as far as we thought.

When she retired, officially because of her complaining feet, it was widely believed the raw fury of the Williams' games, imperfect children of the violently perfect Seles, had defeated her mind. If this was where tennis was going, she had no place, a stiletto would not do in a gunfight.

So, again, why is she playing well? Hingis says she is a little more fresh on her return, and also "probably I was a little more determined, even more hungry".

Maybe she has crept into a vacuum. Maybe it's just that the game has not progressed as far as she, or we, imagined.

While the Williams sisters have gone walkabout, no one has taken the game a further step in power. Clijsters hits big, so does Davenport, so can Sharapova, but it's not as if their forehands have greater acceleration than four years ago. Henin does not blast women off court, neither really does Mauresmo, nor most of the Russians.

All still hit bigger than her, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter either if she never wins a title, or fails to creep into the top five. She's already done enough. In her own small way, she's turned a game on its head.