Tennis: False dawn as Hingis serves up tantalising glimpse of a lost talent

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THE TENTATIVE steps taken by Martina Hingis at the Volvo Women's Open in Pattaya yesterday may, or may not, prove to be the first in several comebacks by the Swiss former prodigy. But the signs of a revival were not encouraging, and nor were her words.

"At this point I have no plans to play any more tournaments," Hingis said after losing to Marlene Weingartner, of Germany, in her first competitive match since retiring two years ago because of ankle problems.

Deprived children in Thailand will benefit from the 24-year-old Hingis' participation in the event, which she entered as a charitable gesture, leaving the media to speculate that it represented a new beginning for the youngest No 1 in history.

Considering the length of Hingis' absence from the WTA Tour, a first round defeat, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2, was reasonable, even though the 25-year-old Weingartner, ranked 73rd, is not a player to send Sharapova and the Williams sisters running for cover. As was the case when Hingis began to be over- powered by her peers, the spirit was willing but the serve was weak.

"I've never had plans further than this step," Hingis said. "Maybe I'll play some exhibition tournaments. That's my plan at the moment." She will continue to keep in touch by commentating and conducting coaching clinics and will try to satisfy her competitive instincts by riding in minor showjumping events.

It is startling to realise that Hingis is only one year older than her compatriot Roger Federer, the greatest talent in men's tennis, and to recall her triumph at Wimbledon in 1997 when, at the age of 16, she became the youngest singles champion since the 15-year-old Lottie Dod, who only had to win three games to take the title in 1887. Hingis went on to win five Grand Slam singles, failing only at the French Open, where she lost in the final twice. She was world No 1 for a total of 209 weeks and won 40 singles titles and 36 in doubles.

In 2001, her lawyers began litigation against the Italian sportswear company Sergio Tacchini, claiming their shoes had damaged her feet. She had operations on her ankles, in 2001 and May 2002, which led to her retirement. Before yesterday, her last match on the WTA Tour was a 6- 3, 6-1, defeat to Elena Dementieva, of Russia, in Filderstadt in October 2002.

Although Hingis was able to capitalise on Weingartner's errors in the opening set yesterday, there was only one moment in the match when she caused damage. Leading 2-1 in the second set, Hingis went up 40-0 on Weingartner's serve by hitting a smash so hard that it removed several letters of her opponent's name on the scoreboard. Hingis then lost nine of the next 10 points to go behind 3-2, and never recovered.

Having played her first professional tournament at 14, Hingis won a total of pounds 10m in official career prize money and earned millions more from endorsements. As she said last year: "I can start my life off doing the things I want to do, and also being able to pay for them, I'm not like a student having to struggle for the rent."

l Monica Seles, absent from the WTA Tour since May 2003 with a foot injury, lost 6-4, 6-4, to Martina Navratilova in an exhibition match in Wellington, New Zealand, yesterday.


1994: Beats Patty Fendick 6-4, 6-3 on her debut, aged 14 years four days.

1997: Youngest woman to win a Grand Slam with 6-2, 6-2 victory over Mary Pierce at the Australian Open (pictured). Wins Wimbledon and US Open.

1998: Wins Australian Open. But a sprained left ankle ends 80-week run as the world No 1.

1999: Wins Australian Open.

2001: Surgery on right ankle.

2002: Surgery on left ankle. Plays "last" match of her career in Filderstadt, losing 6-3, 6-1 to Elena Dementieva in second round.

2003: Retires citing ongoing pain from ankle injuries.

Yesterday: Plays in Thailand Open, losing 1-6, 6-2, 6-2 to Marlene Weingartner.