Tennis' poet contemplates farewell

"I have been in the game too long not to know what it takes to get to the top and I'm no longer capable or it," said Hingis.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

"I have been in the game too long not to know what it takes to get to the top and I'm no longer capable of it," said Hingis.-Pic. GAMMA

Maybe one day, at home in Switzerland in January, in the quiet of her room, she looked down to her scarred aching feet and then at the television and wondered at the endless cruelty of it all. How could a woman named Martina be winning titles at the Australian Open, and she, the one who was named after that Martina, who was less than half her age, was now shuffling her retirement papers because she couldn't win anymore?

Navratilova plays on, Hingis is gone, life takes the most unexpected turns. At 46, one is still strong enough to play, at 22 the other's body is in betrayal.

If an older woman at the Open brought an ironical twist to Hingis' tale, an older man put her situation in perspective. Asked by John McEnroe how long he would play on, Andre Agassi simply said: "When I know that even at my best I cannot win."

Hingis must have nodded her head in approval. Her foot sliced and diced by enthusiastic surgeons, reluctant at 22 to re-start a life she first professionally pursued at 14, she may possibly never find her best again. Even she does it will not be enough. You cannot fell trees with a nail-clipper, and Hingis versus the Williams'/Capriati/Davenport had begun to look as absurd as that.

It is why the word from Zurich is that she is done with tennis. Her body is bruised and so too her ego. Champions arrive at their destination by virtue of desire; they want to win yes, but abhor losing even more. "I have been in the game too long not to know what it takes to get to the top and I'm no longer capable of it," said Hingis. "When you have been No.1 for four years you cannot be satisfied with anything less. And when you can't compete with the best ... no it's not possible to envisage a comeback".

Of course, sports stars can be relied on for deception, famous for their frantic forehands and also their fickle minds. Today's retirement becomes tomorrow's comeback. Suddenly, one bright morning, life appears less despondent, the racket less heavier, and the grind less tiresome, and epitaphs are dust-binned with a sigh.

Still, with Hingis the die seems cast, as if in the clean air of the mountains, her mortality has been easier to see. She has been No.1, won enough money to open a racing stable, won five Grand Slam singles titles and even more in doubles. It is some distance from Navratilova and Evert who won 18 each, and almost half of Monica Seles' nine.

But she has her place in history, her footprints lie imprinted in the memory. Her game was sharp, and her manner blunt, she was a graceful painter on court but often abandoned refinement off it. She would mock a player with her incisive strokes which was agreeable, but then disagreeably continue the process in the interview room. Once she referred to Amelie Mauresmo as "half a man."

She was the bridge between Steffi Graf and the Williams sisters, a delicate, clever player caught between two powerful generations. She was mind over muscle, touch over power, a fleeting reminder of an older, sweeter time when tennis was a matter of creation not destruction. Her lack of strength became her signature, and then eventually her undoing.

She was a prodigy, like most of the others, becoming the youngest player last century to win a Grand Slam title when he took the 1997 Australian Open at 16 years, 3 months, 26 days. Later that year, she fell from one of her horses, hurt her knee and required surgery in the spring. It cost her the French Open final, and moreover a Grand Slam, for she won Wimbledon and the US Open that year.

On song, Hingis's matches became a succession of minor masterpieces. She did not so much compete but give masterclasses in technique, and lectures in geometry. Her contests became voyages of discovery, where she explored every nook and corner and inch of the court, not so much outplaying opponents as outfoxing them. When she wrong-footed a player a small, wicked smile would emerge at the corners of her mouth. Tennis was a delight for her and in turn for us.

She generated limited pace but knew how to use it, created angles where none appeared to exist, and probed for weakness, and then exploited it, like a committed interrogator. She was Garry Kasparov with a tennis racket, and only those who haven't seen her would consider that overstatement.

But for a woman with a pleasing game she could be strangely unpleasant. She would belittle opponents, be ungracious on losing, dump doubles partner Jana Novotna saying she was "too old and slow," and was heckled by a Parisian crowd when she left behaved abominably in the 1999 French Open final against Graf. She pouted, postured, argued, and then fled the court in tears when she lost and slapped an official who asked her to return for the post-match ceremony.

It meant sympathy from the crowds was hard to come by, even though later it was possibly deserved. The game has changed and left her behind. She may have owned the No.1 ranking but her Grand Slam results told their own tale. Between 1999 and now, she played 14 Grand Slams, won one and lost in five finals.

It was harder to stomach for she was not so much outplayed as overwhelmed. Lindsay Davenport was 6' 2" and 175 pounds, Venus 6' 1 1/2" and 160, Serena 5' 10" and 145. Hingis was 130 pounds in wet clothes and 5ft 6in on tip toe: she was too many inches shorter and too many pounds lighter. A welterweight out of place in a heavyweight division.

As Martina Navratilova once said: "Hingis is always looking up, whether she's playing against Lindsay Davenport, Serena or Venus Williams. It's intimidating. It's tough because you know no matter how good you are -- if they are the same level that you are -- they've got that extra six inches of reach or more. You're always at a disadvantage."

Her matches became a sort of stuttering poetry; every time she composed a verse, a drive by a Davenport erased it. On court, you could see her confidence drip away with her sweat, in her shrieks of dismay, her pleading looks to her mother in the stands, in her tendency to try to slug it out with her opponents in some vain defiance. When her bruised feet affected her speed, she had nothing left to give.

At the Australian Open, in 200l, her predicament was driven home most clearly. At her best, she outplayed Serena 8-6 in the third set in the quarter finals, dismantled Venus 6-,1 6-1 in the semis, only to be punished by Capriati in straight sets in the final. It was her last stand.

She was David alright, but faced with too many Goliaths.