Hingis geared up for another cannonball run

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The Independent Online

Hingis can be nothing other than popular in Melbourne, where she figured in six finals between 1997 and 2002, winning the first three. But whether the style that won five Grand Slams and 35 other singles titles remains relevant is the question intriguing many besides Hingis herself.

The ability to play smart tennis and move accordingly was what carried her to No 1. What drove her out of the game in 2002 was, ostensibly, a persistent foot problem, but there was no denying the allied effect on her morale of the cannonball stuff dished out by the Williams sisters.

Since then the women's game has become faster and more powerful, even when practised by someone of similar stature such as Justine Henin-Hardenne. This was starkly shown in Sydney last week when Henin, herself plagued by injury, sent Hingis packing in straight sets.

Despite the fine words about a new challenge, the implication is that Hingis has come back because she was bored by a life of leisure and luxury. Clearly, the whiff of battle proved irresistible.

Though the next fortnight will not, of course, prove definitive, Hingis will certainly be offered a sharp image of what lies in store. She starts with an eminently winnable outing against the Russian 30th seed, Vera Zvonareva, before a possible third-round clash with Mary Pierce, the 1995 champion, who herself knows a thing or two about comebacks.

Failure to get past Zvon-areva would be a setback, while defeat by the resurgent Pierce would not, at least at this stage. However, with the Aussie audience roaring her along, swatting Pierce would tell the world the Swiss Miss is back for real. The next peak for Hingis should be a quarter-final against the second seed, Kim Clijsters, always providing the hip injury afflicting the Belgian has cleared up. Quietly crossing his fingers, the tournament's chief executive, Paul McNamee, said: "Kim says she is going to play, so I believe her."

The hope is for someone like Clijsters or Henin to disrupt the US domination. Since Hingis lost her title to Lindsay Davenport in 2000 the crown has lodged with Americans in four years out of five. Davenport is top seed, but as she closes in on her 30th birthday stamina, never a strong point, could be a decisive factor, as it was in her astonishing collapse to Serena Williams in last year's final.

Though they have been lying low of late, nursing various ailments and doing the myriad things they enjoy, the Williams girls pose clear threats to the ambitions of the other top women. Like her sister, Venus holds a Grand Slam, the biggest of them all, Wimbledon, by having outlasted Davenport in the final, and Davenport's seeding may survive no further than a quarter-final in Melbourne against either Venus or Henin.

Maria Sharapova, the opponent Hingis would love to play most on the comeback trail ("I want to see what she's got") and the best of nine seeded Russians, would need to eliminate Serena in the fourth round and then either Venus, Davenport or Henin to set up a confrontation with Hingis.

It would be in the final, which just goes to show Hingis is already thinking big again.