Hingis' grass-court artistry is serious threat to favourites

The former world No 1 has made a stronger comeback than many expected, writes Paul Newman
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Until the end of last year Virginia Ruano Pascual's place as a footnote in tennis history seemed secure. The 32-year-old Spaniard has rarely troubled the headline writers in 17 years as a professional, but at least she could say she was the last player to face Martina Hingis at Wimbledon.

It was in 2001, as the world No 83, that Ruano Pascual beat Hingis, the world No 1, 6-4, 6-2 in the first round at the All England Club.

Hingis, who was troubled by a bad back that day, played on through injuries but finally put away her racket in February 2003, having missed Wimbledon in 2002 because of ankle problems. "I have no plans to ever return," she said.

At midday this afternoon, however, Hingis will walk out on to Court 2 to play the Ukrainian Olga Savchuk in the first round. She comes to Wimbledon, moreover, as a live contender to reclaim the title she first won as a 16-year-old in 1997, when she became the youngest champion in the open era.

Since returning to action six months ago after successful operations on her ankles, Hingis has reached the last eight of her first two Grand Slam tournaments, won her first title (the Italian Open) of what she calls her "second career" and performed so consistently that she has climbed back to No 15 in the world rankings.

There were fears that Hingis would be unable to cope with the power game that had already started to dominate before her retirement, but she has worked hard on her physical strength. She also remains a wonderfully inventive player who can trouble the best and since her return she has beaten Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams.

"I think the way she's come back is unbelievable," Kim Clijsters, the world No 2, said. "I think she's a lot fitter than she was when she at the top. That's something that I think she knew she had to work on. I see her in the locker rooms. I see her in the hotel. She looks so focused. It's great to see somebody who's had everything in her career still hungry to play tennis.

"I've always admired her. There's nobody on the tour who hits the ball as cleanly as her, nobody who anticipates as well as her. I think she's still the most talented player on the tour."

Roger Federer, her fellow Swiss, agrees. "I'm very impressed," he said. "Here she is, in the top 15 already. She breaks all the records she sets herself. She doesn't just say, she does it too."

In 1997 Hingis prepared for Wimbledon on clay courts. This year she has been practising on indoor courts back home in Switzerland. Since 2001 she had played just once on a grass court - an exhibition in Eastbourne last summer - until her first practice session at the All England Club on Saturday. "It felt good," Hingis said. "I very much welcome the surface."

Throughout her comeback Hingis has maintained that she has no specific goals. "I'm definitely satisfied with the draw," she said of her Wimbledon chances. "I've reached the quarter-finals in the last two Grand Slam tournaments so in a way I feel that's the least I want to do. I just don't want to have any bad surprises. I want to stay healthy, perform at my best and take one match at a time."

Does she see herself as a contender? "I'm definitely a good outsider," she said. And how does she assess her comeback so far?

"I'm happy with my performances. You always wish for more and better, but that's natural as a competitor."