Classic Hingis rolls back the years

The former world No 1 has continued her stunning revival with a 6-4, 6-1 third-round victory over Iveta Benesova at the Australian Open
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Fairytales are supposed to be for children, for people like the Martina Hingis who played all four Grand Slams at the age of 14, not for a 25-year-old Hingis essaying another fling at her abandoned career in a sport which chews up competitors at an ever-earlier stage.

Perhaps Hingis still qualifies for fairytale status on the strength of juvenile looks, allied to the wide smile, part joy, part disbelief, at the scope of her wild-card progress in the Australian Open, a tournament she won three times from 1997-99 and which, according to some of her more excitable followers, she can capture again.

For now, though, Hingis is happy enough enjoying a day's rest from the furnace heat of the season's first Grand Slam in Melbourne after a 6-4 6-1 third-round victory over the Czech, Iveta Benesova, which began uncertainly, grew in assurance and ended in flat-out, runaway triumph.

Already, Hingis is being hurriedly installed as second favourite for the women's title behind Lindsay Davenport, a rush of confidence which she is anxious to dampen. "There are plenty in contention," she said. "We are only down to the last 16, remember."

Certainly, her fourth-round progress should be assured against the challenge of Australian Samantha Stosur, but can the newly-resurrected toughness of a former world No 1 see her through when the going really gets tough, as it surely will if the seedings work out and she tackles Kim Clijsters in the quarter-finals and, if victorious, Amélie Mauresmo in the semis?

Hingis will have taken note of the down escalator carrying the mangled ambitions of the eclipsed Williams sisters, betrayed by lack of the match play and fitness required to ply their trade. Clearly, she has prepared carefully for her return to a sport which inflicted heavy damage on her feet and the extreme conditions which later forced closure of the roofs on the main courts did not affect Hingis as much as it did Benesova, at 22 three years her junior.

"Coming into this tournament I was, like, 'OK, tough first round, see if I survive that one first'," she said. "But one by one the expectations definitely grow. With every match I'm getting more confidence. I don't think I played my best tennis today, but as long as you win it's good and there is always room to improve."

Hingis' downgrading of her form will have come as bleak news to Benesova, ranked 42 in the world and conqueror of the fifth seed, Mary Pierce. Understandably boosted by that upset, the left-handed Czech, clad in black halter top and possibly the skimpiest skirt ever seen in women's tennis, came out swinging. These days even women ranked 42nd can hit a mean ball, and beneath her white visor the normally sunny disposition of Hingis was replaced by a look of concern, emphasising her earlier comment about the new-look tour: "There is a whole new gang out there, and I am looking for as much inspiration as I can get."

Probably drawing some of that inspiration from a crowd solidly in favour of what their three-time champion is attempting, Hingis eventually managed to staunch the flow of winners produced on her backhand by Benesova, but not before she trailed 3-1. The riposte was immediate. With the poker-faced Benesova pursuing a 4-1 lead behind her own serve, Hingis showed there is nothing wrong with her feet now by running down a drop shot to reach break point, so disconcerting the Czech that she walloped a fearsome backhand into the netting.

Now the Hingis game was grooved, that old mesmerising accuracy of groundstrokes flowing beautifully. In her next service game Benesova let slip a 40-love lead before clinging on, something she would perhaps later savour as her high point of this match, since she won only one of the subsequent 10 games.

Three Benesova double faults presented Hingis with the invitation to serve out for the first set, which she did with the assistance of one of her rare aces in 38 minutes. It was not just the debilitating heat which forced the Czech to bury her face in a towel.

Required to go for the lines to keep Hingis at bay, Benesova was not up to the job in the second set and was run ragged by the metronomic skills of the Swiss. She was forced to seek shade by the backstops of the Rod Laver Arena between points, clearly in physical as well as mental distress. "Thank God she felt the heat more than I did," was how Hingis summed it up.

After 66 minutes the Fairytale Girl was into the fourth round, borne along by this tribute from Benesova: "She's a very clever, very smart player. She knows exactly where to put the ball. It's amazing, after three years not playing she's really mentally strong. She believes in her game."

It is precisely whatHingis wanted to hear as she admitted "I missed it for three years", and prepares for what new excitements this week will bring.

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