Hingis happy to put the pain of competition in the past

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The chauffeur driving Martina Hingis from the airport here last week wished her good luck in the tournament. Hingis laughed and said: "I hope to do well giving the [coaching] clinics - don't push it."

It seems cruelly premature that the 23-year-old Hingis should be the subject of a "Where are they now" feature. Was it not only yesterday that The Independent arranged a photograph of the poppet dressed as Lottie Dod, the 19th Century tennis prodigy, in anticipation of Hingis's Wimbledon singles triumph at the age of 16?

In fact it was the summer of 1997, when Hingis glided across the courts, the youngest world No 1 in history (16 years, six months), oblivious to warnings that she was another candidate for burn out.

In October 2002, after two operations, the Slovakian-born Swiss retired from the WTA Tour. She was no longer able to cope with the power of the Williams sisters and the pain in her feet.

Her stylish, cerebral tennis, lacking only a potent serve with which to win cheap points, had brought her five Grand Slam singles championships - all but the French Open, where she had succeeded in the junior tournament, aged 12 - and nine Grand Slam doubles titles.

Surprisingly, but characteristically - she has always spoken her mind and is not afraid to contradict conventional wisdom - Hingis is opposed to the WTA's age eligibility rule, designed to reduce the physical and psychological risks faced by players who start too young. Players are now limited in the number of professional events they can play until they are 18.

"It was so good that I could have played [so much] that young [14], because you get all the experience," Hingis insisted. "Today, there's a lot of one-dimensional tennis, because the girls are playing bang-boom, and that's it. They don't have the time to really learn and play the better players, as I did when I was 14, 15. And I wasn't even tired of getting beat by Mary Pierce, 0 and 0. It's not like it hurts you, and that's when you learn, and you get stronger physically, and in better shape.

"Look at [Svetlana] Kuznetsova. It was fantastic what she did last week [beating Venus Williams and reaching the final in Dubai], but at 18 you wouldn't improve much any more at that age as a girl. I don't think so.

"At 14, 15, you can still change things technically and strategically, but when you're 18, 19, it's almost too late. The players today are almost not getting the time to learn the game, to practise and play matches as I did, and Steffi [Graf] did, and Arantxa [Sanchez-Vicario], Monica [Seles] and Jennifer [Capriati] did. All these girls had the time to improve and to learn."

But what about injuries? "That's always been a worry for any player. It's all about timing, I think. I would play three or four tournaments in a row and then have two or three weeks of rest to regroup my body. Everyone has to find their own rhythm."

Hingis is suing Sergio Tacchini, her former shoes and clothing sponsor, claiming that his company's shoes damaged her feet. "The case is still going on, but my lawyers take care of it," she said.

Putting too much pressure on young players would surely damage the sport. "The thing I think could ruin tennis is if girls are allowed to play junior competitions for ever, and then they come out at 17, 18 and they're like, 'Wow! Okay, what am I going to do now?' "

Venus and Serena Williams did not play junior events. "That's a very great exception, yes. But I think only the Williams sisters can work like that, nobody else. Because they always had each other to get better. If you have a hitting partner like Serena or Venus, what else do you want?"

Returning to her theme, Hingis said: "A lot of the Russian girls got better, but they haven't reached the top. And the only players that are physically so strong are the two Belgians [Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters]. When I see some of the players in the semis, that's when I want to get my racket back and play."

Does she miss the game? "Well, who wouldn't? It's been almost a year and a half. The first two or three months, of course, you miss not being there. On the other hand, you're relieved.

"It's nice to have the luxury of going out and not being in pain. I don't walk like I'm on nails. I can start my life off doing the things that I want to do, and also being able to pay for it. I'm not like a student having to struggle for the rent."

Hingis won $18.34m (£10m) in official prize-money, and millions more from marketing.

"I've just bought a house in Zurich," she said, "right on the lakes. I'm decorating it and refurbishing it. I'm hoping to move in on 1 May."

Does she live on her own? "That's none of your business," she responded, laughing.

Hingis has become a tennis commentator and also conducts tennis clinics for adidas, who arranged the trip to the Middle East, and for Yonex. "And on 8 March I have a new one: my first radio spot for a washing machine - so I'm a housewife now," she joked.

"Now I'm close to the sport commentating, and it's like, 'Hmm'. You're studying the strategy of the players and you know you've played some of them and you've been beating them."

Has the women's game become boring, particularly in the absence of the Williams sisters? "It's different," Hingis said. "I wouldn't say it's boring. There are the two Belgians and there is the rest of the group. Boring? You [in the media] have to make it exciting with the words that you write, because that's the way people look at it. You can make a one-dimensional game exciting.

"I think it's catching on in the men's game. It used to be only the serve, but the players got used to it and they return better now, and it's becoming a more exciting game. At the Australian Open it was amazing. The men's matches produced the best tennis I've ever seen.

"I like watching [Marat] Safin, [Andy] Roddick, and Roger [Federer], of course. It's always nice to watch him, not only because I know him so well, but also because of the beauty of his game."

Does she think the Williams sisters want to get to the top of the game? "Venus is back, but it's not easy. People ask me if I think about a comeback, but when I look at Venus, I don't want to end up like that, even if I was healthy and everything was fine. The train is moving fast. Venus hasn't shown anything right now. What makes the Williams sisters strong is if they're together, but for one to be alone it's difficult."

While working at the Adidas Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, Hingis hit with Anne Keothavong, the British No 1, ranked No 185 in the world. "She's a really nice girl," Hingis said. "They had media training, where they ask you questions and they tape you, and she was really funny. I learned some new English words - she's a bit of a fruitcake."

But what about the tennis? "She's got very nice strokes, but she's almost too nice to play the game."

She lacks the killer instinct?

"No, it's not only the killer instinct. When you're winning matches it comes automatically. People were always saying I never had a killer instinct. but still I became No 1. There's like one extra thing missing in Anne's game right now, I think, for her to make another step.

"Strategy-wise she's sometimes very one-sided, and you can figure her out pretty quickly and know what she's doing and at what time. I was always a very good strategist. I don't know if everyone can read the game that well. Even in the juniors, figuring out an opponent's game was always my strength. After two or three games I knew what they were doing and knew their game."

What does she do to keep fit? "I try as much as I can, with running, which is limited, and with golf and with horseback riding - I've got a couple of horses that I'm competing with in little local showjumping events. That keeps you in shape more than you would think."

Will she be commentating at the French Open, the scene of her tears and tantrums when losing to Steffi Graf in the 1999 final? "Probably not, but I'm hoping for Wimbledon."

Why not the French? Is she scared of going back and facing the spectators, who gave her such a hard time?

"Oh no, I'm not afraid of that," she said. "That match was elected one of the matches of the last century, so at least I'm part of history."

How would Hingis like to be remembered as a tennis player? "For the finesse and the strategy and all the things that made it look so easy when I was playing."

Would she like to marry and have children? "One day, sometime, but at the moment I feel like a child myself, so it's a little early to start thinking about it."