Everyone was delighted when Martina Hingis announced in November that she would be returning to the women's tour after a three-year "retirement". Tennis fans were pleased because they had missed the Hingis finesse as well as her mischievous sense of humour. Her former colleagues were politely welcoming, believing that they had little to fear from someone whose withdrawal from the game had been prompted by chronic foot and ankle injuries. Hingis was applauded for her guts in attempting a comeback. No one expected her to achieve much.
As the Australian Open approaches its climax, however, her opponents may be revising their opinions. Astonishing though it seems, the Swiss former world No 1 is now just two matches away from a place in the final. Yesterday she squashed Samantha Stosur 6-1, 7-6, the last home player left standing. Tomorrow she meets Kim Clijsters, the No 2 seed, normally a fearsome opponent, but the Belgian is carrying an injury.
Hingis could actually win this tournament, her first Grand Slam since the 2002 US Open, where she lost in the fourth round. "I played really well for the first one and a half sets, I would say," Hingis said after yesterday's victory. "Boy, 5-3, 30-0, I'm like, 'Please, two more points', but it took me a while until we finished that match. This is definitely one of the more relieving matches I've had. Making the last eight coming into this event, I would have never thought I'd get that far."
She was not alone in such thinking. Assessing Hingis's comeback chances at the start of the year, Nick Bollettieri said: "The biggest factor will be her serve. If her serve hasn't improved, and she's up against a Mary Pierce, for example, Martina will be running for her life on every return of serve. Another big question mark is her movement. Martina used to control the court, but now you have a player like Kim Clijsters, who runs down every single ball."
Ironically, it was the very slowness of the Hingis serve that Justine Henin-Hardenne found difficult when beating Hingis in a warm-up tournament for the Australian Open. "I had a little bit of trouble on the return," Henin-Hardenne said. "It's never been easy for me to return against a player who's serving pretty slowly." All the same, Henin-Hardenne predicted problems for Hingis: "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."
If she has confounded the pundits, it is thanks to a combination of her talent, which seems undiminished, indeed enhanced by a slightly punchier serve, her fitness (she appears to be in better shape than ever) and a good dose of luck in the draw.
After beating the No30 seed, Vera Zvonareva, in the first round, and Emma Laine, of Finland, in the second, she should have met a rejuvenated Mary Pierce in the third. But the Frenchwoman fell to an unseeded Czech, Iveta Besenova, whom Hingis easily outplayed. Then came Stosur, not much more of a challenge.
It already amounts to a remarkable comeback. Then again, the 25-year-old has made a habit of achieving remarkable things. She became the youngest Grand Slam champion of the 20th century when she won the Australian Open in 1997 aged 16 years and three months and, three months later, she became the youngest ever world No 1, in a year when she also triumphed at Wimbledon and the US Open.
Hingis has had her problems with crowds in the past - notably when she lost to Steffi Graf at the French Open in 1999 - but she is a favourite of the Melbourne crowd, which has adopted her as an honorary Australian. That warmth was evident last night, despite her defeat of an Australian. "We love you, Martina," was a shout that was frequently heard from the stands.
Hingis's half of the draw was far less daunting than the other, which contains Lyndsay Davenport, Henin-Hardenne and Maria Sharapova. It also featured the Williams sisters, but both were unceremoniously tipped out early, Venus in the first round and Serena in the third.
If Clijsters has a good day tomorrow, she could end Hingis's dream run. She is one of the big hitters who caused the Swiss so much grief before the latter retired. But the Belgian injured her hip at the warm-up tournament in Sydney and has warned repeatedly that she is taking things here match by match.
Hingis won four of their five previous encounters, beating her most recently in Sydney in 2002, but Clijsters - who at 22 is three years her junior - was a much more raw player back then.
Were Hingis to prevail, she would probably play Amélie Mauresmo in the semi-finals. Then it could be Davenport, Henin-Hardenne or Sharapova in the final. That is jumping ahead, of course, but the prospects are intriguing.
Sharapova, for instance, was not even on the tour when Hingis was last around. In one of her characteristically barbed comments, the Swiss woman observed recently that she had watched the rise of the 2004 Wimbledon champion and failed to understand what all the fuss was about.
She also said that Sharapova was the player whom she was most looking forward to meeting on her return to the circuit. "I want to see what she's got," she explained.
During her spell away, Hingis dabbled with television commentary and tried to develop interests outside tennis. However, the lure of the game proved too much. Returning late last year, she reached the semi-finals of the Australian hardcourt championships on the Gold Coast, before losing in the first round at Sydney to Henin-Hardenne.
Yesterday she demonstrated that, while she still has the talent and fighting spirit of a champion, she is still a bit rusty in some departments. Notably, she appears to have forgotten how to win. It took her four match points to vanquish Stosur, who was playing in the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time.
Hingis served twice for the match in the second set, at 5-4 and 6-5, but each time was broken by the Australian. Recovering from 2-5 down in the tie-break, she once again failed to close. On her first match point, a 33-stroke rally ended with a Hingis error. Two more match points came and went. Finally, at 9-8, Stosur sent a forehand into the net.
Stosur said afterwards: "She's just an awesome player. Playing her, I know why she's won all those Grand Slams and why she's probably going to go down as one of the greats ever."
Equally admiring sentiments were voiced by Davenport, who said last week that she was "playing excellent". The top seed also predicted that Hingis would, as she had in the past, find a way to "negate" her opponents' power game.
The comeback: How Hingis has fared
MONDIAL AUSTRALIAN HARDCOURT CHAMPIONSHIP (Gold Coast, Australia Jan 1-7 2006)
1st rnd, bt Maria Vento-Kabchi (Venezuela, ranked 62) 6-2, 6-1
2nd rnd, bt Klara Koukalova (Czech Republic, 35) 6-3, 6-2
Qtr-final, bt Nuria Llagostera Vives (Spain, 50) 6-2, 4-6, 6-0
Semi-final, lost to Flavia Pennetta (Italy, 23) 6-1, 6-7, 2-6
MEDIBANK INTERNATIONAL (Sydney, 8-13 January)
1st rnd, lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne (Belgium, 8) 3-6, 3-6
AUSTRALIAN OPEN (Melbourne, 16-29 Jan)
1st rnd bt Vera Zvonareva (Russia, 31) 6-1, 6-2
2nd rnd bt Emma Laine (Finland, 87) 6-1, 6-1
3rd rnd bt Iveta Benesova (Czech Republic, 47) 6-4, 6-1
4th rnd bt Samantha Stosur (Australia, 61) 6-1, 7-6Reuse content