Martina Hingis: 'I never thought I'd be here again, but I still have it in me'

After the tears and tantrums of 1999, the Swiss miss has returned in stunning style. Ronald Atkin talks to a resurgent talent
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The Independent Online

It has been five years, which is a long time for anybody with a penchant for Paris to be giving the place a miss. And though Martina Hingis does love the French capital she will not find out until tomorrow, when she embarks on her mission to complete unfinished business, whether its citizens have grown to feel the same about her. Roland Garros is the only one of the four Grand Slams Hingis has failed to win, and in her second losing final there - to Steffi Graf in 1999 - she was booed off court in tears when tantrums cost her a title she had served for.

So it will be an apprehensive Hingis who reacquaints herself with the grand old arena in the Bois de Boulogne, though apprehension will be as nothing compared to the soaring confidence and delight of a woman who has put three years of retirement behind her and accomplished such a sensational return to tennis at the grand old age of 25 that she won "World Comeback of the Year" at the Laureus Awards in Barcelona six days ago.

Confidence was capped last weekend as Hingis landed her first title, the Italian Open in Rome, less than five months after her surprise decision to give tennis another shot got under way in Australia. In that time the woman who once reigned a total of 209 weeks at the summit of her profession has gone from having no ranking at all to being rated 14th in the world, with a place in the top 10 virtually a certainty by the time Wimbledon rolls around.

So why not set the French championship in her sights too? "A year ago I was in no sort of condition, and clay is the surface which demands the best level of fitness," she said after a practice session at Roland Garros on Friday. "Right now that is not a problem, and I am here in Paris to win. Picking up the one Grand Slam which has so far eluded me is one of the main reasons I have come back.

"I know there are others who can do well here, but winning Rome gave my confidence a big boost. There have already been three great moments for me this year: getting to the last eight at the Australian Open; beating Maria Sharapova in Tokyo; and then the Italian title. But I have to say I never thought I would be here again. They say you should never give up hope and keep fighting. Well, here I am.

"It's just great to be back on top of the game, to know that I definitely still have it in me. It has all come together at just the right time. If I can play my game and dictate, then it doesn't matter who's on the other side of the net. This year I have surpassed all my expectations. I won't have any regrets any more."

What sent the Hingis spirits soaring at the Italian Open was not so much defeating Dinara Safina in the final to clock up the 41st tournament victory of a career which began at the age of 13 in 1993, but the semi-final victory over an old adversary, Venus Williams, after losing the opening set 6-0 in 22 minutes. That there is a new edge to Hingis was shown in her reaction to being asked about that "bagel" set.

"All is not lost if you lose the first set 6-0. I was still fresh, so I thought, 'OK, two more sets to go'. And I won the last point. That's what the match is about, right?"

It was the sledgehammer hitting of such as Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles which helped push her into giving up. "Yeah, it was a tense time, with the Russians coming up too," she said. "Four or five years ago everyone was really determined and hungry, there were 20 people out there who could win a tournament. Now somehow it feels like it has narrowed down to five, maybe 10 sometimes."

However, the mental battering being dished out by the heavy brigade was as nothing compared to the pain of feet and ankles required to do too much from too early an age. "Chronic" is how she recalls the condition of those feet. "I had a heel spur and a couple of surgeries on both feet. When you have such difficulties and can't play the game you want to play, it's no fun. And I was always a player who tried to have fun. Now I look at it differently because I'm a little older and I don't take anything for granted any more."

So, in October 2002, having just celebrated her 22nd birthday, the girl who had won five Grand Slams (three Australian, one US, one Wimbledon) and 35 other titles limped out of the limelight to go back home to Switzerland and indulge her passion for horseriding, as well as catching up on what she felt had passed her by while she was cocooned in the tennis world.

So, was there more to life for Martina than tennis? Not necessarily. "When you are 17 or 18 you think you are missing out on so much. But you aren't really. I've realised that. An easy lifestyle did not suit the competitive spirit in me after 10 years on the tour. Over the last three years I tried different things to see if they would make me happy, but once I got my health problems under control my passion for the game made me want to try it again, see if I could survive a new challenge. Also I missed playing in front of crowds."

The first inkling of Hingis's change of heart came in February last year, when she accepted a wild card into a tournament in Thailand. Defeat in the first round was assumed to have quashed any thought of a return, but instead she launched herself into a summer of Team Tennis in the United States. "Without that, I probably would not be here now," she said. "It definitely gave me confidence to be playing again."

With her single-minded mother, Melanie Molitor, at her side once more, Hingis underwent enough of a fitness regime for Mark Bender, a physiotherapist who looked after the British Davis Cup team for five years, to note that work on lower-limb development left her "legs, quads and bum far more bulky than they ever were before." The Hingis reaction is that in those three years of absence she developed from girl into woman.

The second comeback was set for early January at the Royal Pines Resort on Australia's Gold Coast, where she surprised herself by reaching the semi-finals. Then, armed with a newly awarded ranking of 349, Hingis accepted a wild card into the Australian Open, where she had appeared in six consecutive finals between 1997 and 2002. To the delight of an audience who had always admired her fighting qualities, Hingis pushed the second seed, Kim Clijsters, to three sets before losing in the quarter-finals, and since then the progress has accelerated.

"At first I didn't know whether I would get past the first or second round while I was trying to rediscover my fluency and routine," said Hingis. "I don't know anybody who has been away for so long and come back, so I didn't have any expectations. It was a question of keeping on working at it because it doesn't come down from heaven, you know. You have to help it along. I just set myself short-term goals because I wanted to keep it real-istic. Then I had to see if my body and my feet would hold up."

What was also needed, she rapidly discovered, was a change of attitude. "When I was 15 I was a fearless rookie. But now I have to be more disciplined, do everything possible not to get injured. Now I go to bed early, my regime is stricter and more disciplined because I want it now. Before, my mom and I used to fight over things like that. Now it's my choice, and I know if I keep to my routine it's going to take me further.

"I soon found out that though in some ways it is slower, tennis is more relentless now, more physical, more demanding on your body. In the old days, when I was 4-1 up I used to feel I could give my opponent a chance and still win, but now you can't ever let down or ease up. But nothing can really surprise me any more. Maybe in life, but not on the tennis court."

What Hingis is particularly enjoying, apart from the thrill of playing in front of crowds again, is her popularity as an underdog. "I guess it's because I haven't been around for three years, but I'm happy because it means I can take advantage of having the crowds on my side."

Perhaps even in Paris, too, where her resurgent form threatens to be a key factor, with Davenport on the brink of retirement, Serena Williams off the radar, Venus and Justine Henin-Hardenne struggling with injuries and Clijsters already planning to quit in another 18 months.

Of one thing we can be confident. Should Martina Hingis win the Roland Garros final at the third chance, the tears this time will be ones of joy.

Life & Times: The prodigy and the prodigal

NAME: Martina Hingis.

BORN: 30 September 1980, Kosice, Slovakia (Swiss national).

VITAL STATS: 5ft 7in, 9st 4lb.

GRAND SLAMS: Australian Open 1997, '98, '99; French Open '97, '99; Wimbledon '97; US Open '97.

HIGHLIGHTS: Turned pro '94. Youngest Wimbledon champion '96 (doubles with Helena Sukova). Reached all four Grand Slam singles finals '97. Youngest Grand Slam singles champion in 20th century at Australian Open '97. Youngest Wimbledon singles champion in Open era '97. Ranked No 1 in March '97 - youngest ever. Comeback of the Year honour at Laureus World Sports Awards '06.