SECOND COMING

There is no single dominant player in women's tennis at the moment, and in this field of fickle performers, Hingis will fancy her chances, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

This is a saga that in essence revolves around shoes. Not glass ones, the kind that Cinderella reputedly owned — although this story looks like it could have its own fairytale finish — but a different and dangerous variety; shoes that nip at your ankles, the sort that damage your heel. Martina Hingis reckons that she once owned a few of these, and that they nearly put an end to her tennis career three years ago. Back then she was a gifted girl, interrupted in her prime. Now she has returned, a woman, eager to resume her affair with greatness.

Hingis's comeback has not yielded a trophy as yet; apart from such mundane details it has been tremendously successful. Already she has vaulted back into the top 50, partly on the strength of her showing in Melbourne at the Australian Open where she reached the quarterfinals as a wildcard entry. Last fortnight, in Tokyo, the 25-year-old beat Maria Sharapova in their first career meeting. The improbable win was fashioned in straight sets — so much for the prediction that Hingis would wither against genuine power.

At five feet seven, Hingis is half a foot shorter than the likes of Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport and three inches shorter than Serena Williams. (And, her critics have maintained, a bit too big for her shoes.) Next to theirs, her service arguably has the impact of a feather's kiss. Although Hingis seems to have worked on her upper body strength, her piffling second serve remains a drawback — Sharapova clocks some 20mph quicker, on an average. But, their eagerly anticipated showdown didn't progress along expected lines. The wily Swiss exploited Sharapova's tendency to get stuck on the baseline and hustled her with a mix of out-of-reach angled returns and drop shots. Hingis's shot selection and technique have always been beyond reproach; her volley in particular is deft and deadly accurate. In the late 1990s, at her peak, she didn't need to out-hit opponents because she could out-think them. Whether that still holds, only time will tell; but she has certainly proved it will take more than brute power to knock her down.

To start at the beginning, cut back to a decade ago. Hingis had arrived on the pro scene with the reputation of a prodigy, having displaced Jennifer Capriati in 1993 as the youngest ever junior Grand Slam champion — this, she achieved by winning the French title as a 12-year-old. She turned pro the next year, two weeks after her 14th birthday. Her early promise translated into results quickly; and in 1997, Hingis became the youngest ever to win a singles Grand Slam title. The Australian Open victory helped the then 16-year-old become the youngest World No. 1 in history. She lost to Iva Majoli in the French Open final, but went on to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Agreed, Steffi Graf's absence from the Tour that year due to injury and personal woes helped significantly; but it is entirely to Hingis's credit that she broke ahead of the pack. Her biggest successes on the Tour came between 1997 and 1999, when she won three successive Australian Open titles and reached four other Slam finals. Hingis was, however, dogged by controversy right through 1999: first she spoiled her hitherto chirpy, Ms. Goody-Two-Shoes reputation somewhat by reportedly calling Amelie Mauresmo a half-man; a few months later her behaviour towards the crowd during her French Open loss to Graf came in for heavy criticism.

The laces were beginning to come undone, so to speak. As power began to count in women's tennis, Hingis seemed to lose her way. Big hitters like the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati were forcing their opponents to head to the gym; women's tennis had tilted decisively in favour of baseline play and Hingis was, in the short run, not so much outclassed as outgunned. To complicate matters, Hingis's feet began to trouble her around this time. She filed a $40 million suit against Sergio Tacchini, accusing the company of providing her with substandard shoes that caused grievous harm. Claims and counterclaims flew across continents and Hingis switched to Adidas. Not that her fortunes changed significantly. The next three years reaped a sum total of zero majors. And, although she did manage to put together a few Tier I wins, she was left to contemplate the prospect of multiple surgeries and premature retirement. After Hingis decided in 2002 that her ankles and feet weren't up to it, snide remarks were inevitably made about her competitive spirit; some went as far as to unfairly suggest that she had grown afraid of her opponents. Hingis remained unruffled. Her tennis days seemingly behind her, she headed to Oxford to earn a college degree and maintained a reasonably low profile until last year, when she played a Tour match in Thailand and then Team Tennis alongside John McEnroe. When she announced a full-scale return to the Tour, there were sniggers. But these initial results will encourage Hingis. As of now, it is not inconceivable that she should finish the season in the Top 10. Tracy Austin, the former prodigy struck by injury at 21, confessed last month in Melbourne to being impressed by Hingis's mental resilience: "Normally when any player returns after a long layoff, they are prone to lapses in concentration. Hingis never had that." Sharapova herself reckons that as far as a Top 10 spot is concerned, Hingis is a shoo-in.

On the flip side, such triumphant returns reinforce the regrettable truth that the women's game lacks serious depth. In 2005, Clijsters and Henin waltzed into the Top 10 after a year's break due to injury and illness. It was as if they had never been away. Henin went on to win the French Open, while Clijsters, her fellow Belgian, scored her first Slam win in New York. 2005 was in fact a year for fairytales. A resurgent Serena Williams won the Australian Open, while her sister, Venus ended a long Slam drought to take Wimbledon.

Hingis — named, curiously enough, after one of the most resilient players of all time, Martina Navratilova — must derive tremendous hope from their comebacks. Considering she was able to take out Sharapova with such ease, she could potentially dismantle just about anyone in the Top 10. There is no single dominant player in women's tennis at the moment, and in this field of fickle performers, Hingis will fancy her chances.

On the other hand, Hingis's return spells great news precisely because the women's game desperately needs more character. She brings variety to a field populated by a pile of Russian facsimiles, yawn-inducing baseline grinders and assorted one-shot wonders. But the Swiss acknowledges that she urgently needs to modify her game. "You can't come back and think the game you played before will be good enough," she says. "If I want to survive in the game I have to be better than I was three years ago. The game has improved. But definitely, the determination and passion for the game are still there."

It's hard to judge if the return of a former men's champion would have generated as much buzz. Notwithstanding Roger Federer's dominance, the men's side is a lot more competitive: little separates players ranked inside the top 50. Take for example the former world No. 1, Juan Carlos Ferrero, who has struggled to break into the Top 20 after weathering injuries and a bout of chicken pox a couple of seasons ago.

The condition of Hingis's ankles has, for obvious reasons, excited strong media interest this past fortnight. The lady in question herself says her feet don't hurt anymore and is optimistic about her future.

Hingis will need to build consistency, though, before aspiring to win another bunch of Slams. Just a couple of days after beating Sharapova, she unexpectedly lost the Tokyo final to Elena Dementieva. (That said, Dementieva played well, lobbing cleverly each time Hingis dashed towards the net.) Still, Hingis will take a lot of positives from her first month back in action. She is playing with a fresh maturity, and her bratty histrionics are very likely a thing of the past.

Whether she will dance cheek to cheek with Roger Federer at one of those Wimbledon balls is impossible to tell. She has at any rate strapped her heels. Her pumpkin coach is waiting.

HINGIS IN 2006 January

Played her first event of full 2006 comeback at Gold Coast, reaching the semifinals in singles. She defeated No. 7 seed Klara Koukalova (Czech) and Llagostera Vives (Spain) en route before falling to No. 4 seed Flavia Pennetta (Italy) 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 after suffering left hip flexor strain at 4-all in second set.

Also entered the doubles semifinals with Tatiana Golovin (France), but withdrew due to left hip flexor strain.

Played her second event of comeback in Sydney, but failed to get beyond the first round. She was beaten by No. 5 seed and eventual champion Justin Henin-Hardenne 6-3, 6-3.

Played in the Australian Open — her first Grand Slam since 2002 US Open — and entered the singles quarterfinals. Her victims en route included No. 30 seed Vera Zvonareva (Russia). In the quarterfinals, she was beaten by No. 2 seed Kim Clijsters (Belgium) 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.

Won the mixed doubles title in partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi of India at the Open. Hingis and Bhupathi defeated No. 6 seeds Elena Likhovtseva & Daniel Nestor in the final.

January-February

She dished out another impressive performance at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. She reached her first Tour singles final on her comeback. It was her 67th career final.

She upset No. 3 seed Nathalie Dechy (France) and top seed Maria Sharapova (Russia) en route to the final, where she lost to No. 2 seed Elena Dementieva (Russia).

ON HINGIS'S RETURN

I've sent her an email to wish her good luck but she needs more than luck. ... The game is different now — if you have an apparent weakness it's not easy. The game is so much stronger now than when she left.

— Renowned coach Nick Bollettieri.

It's wonderful news for women's tennis. A star with as much charisma and style as her can only be good for the sport. ... But the big question is whether her game can stand up to the power play that dominates the women's tour.

— Tracy Austin, former World No. 1.

Martina Hingis is one of the game's great champions and unique personalities. Her return will add another level of excitement to the sport and enhance the incredible rivalries and roster of big-name stars.

— WTA Tour chief executive Larry Scott.

It's not easy to come back after three years of not playing. She's at a pretty good level now but she hasn't had a lot of matches. There is a lot of power in women's tennis now. That's a big difference from the time she played.

— Justin Henin-Hardenne after beating Hingis in the Sydney International, a warm-up to the Australian Open.

Hingis has definitely improved a lot, even compared to when she was at her best.

— Kim Clijsters after beating Hingis in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

Hingis always found a way around it before. People have always said that about her. More than anything, the girl finds a way to win and finds a way to get her opponent uncomfortable. I'm sure she has a way to negate power still.

— Lindsay Davenport.