Hingis' return puts golden memories at risk

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The Independent Online

Tennis has missed the craft, guile and outspokenness of Martina Hingis since a combination of injuries and the power of her rivals caused her to retire three years ago, aged 22.

But when Hingis announced her comeback yesterday, the crucial sentence was: "I want to gauge whether I can stay healthy and compete against today's top players."

If she is able to achieve those goals, then the sport will rejoice at the return of the youngest world No 1 in history and the second youngest ever Wimbledon singles champion. If, however, Hingis' body is unable to respond to her wishes, a prolonged decline will be painful to watch.

In February, the Slovakian-born Swiss took tentative steps towards a return to the game at the Volvo Women's Open in Pattaya. Deprived children in Thailand benefited from Hingis' participation, but a first-round defeat, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2, to the 73rd-ranked Marlene Weingartner, of Germany, convinced Hingis that she should stick to exhibition matches, coaching clinics, commentating, and riding in minor showjumping events.

Weingartner is not a player to send Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters running for cover. But, as was the case when Hingis began to be overpowered by her peers, the German showed that though Hingis' spirit was willing, her serve was weak.

Hingis is only one year older than her compatriot Roger Federer, 24, the greatest talent in men's tennis, but her days as a dominant figure in the sport were numbered as soon as Venus and Serena Williams began to hit more of their shots in than out.

Having emerged at a time when the great Steffi Graf was struggling with a chronic back injury, Hingis won five Grand Slam singles titles, failing only at the French Open, where she lost in two finals. She was world No 1 for a total of 209 weeks and won 40 singles titles and 36 in doubles.

In 2001, her lawyers began litigation against the Italian sportswear company Sergio Tacchini, claiming their shoes had damaged her feet. She had operations on her ankles, in October 2001 and May 2002, which led to her retirement. Before her appearance in Thailand this year, her last match on the WTA Tour was a second-round defeat, 6-3, 6-1, to Elena Dementieva, of Russia, in Filderstadt, Germany, in October 2002.

Hingis' last Grand Slam title was at the 1999 Australian Open, and she was able to cling on to the No 1 ranking as long as she did only because she was willing to compete in more tournaments than her closest rivals.

The last time I spoke with Hingis, she said she would like to be remembered in tennis "for the finesse and the strategy and all the things that made it look so easy when I was playing." At the moment, that memory remains intact. Having played her first professional tournament aged just 14, Hingis won a total of £10m in official career prize-money and earned millions more from endorsements.

A year ago, she said: "I can start my life off doing the things I want to do, and also being able to pay for them. I'm not like a student having to struggle for the rent."

Yesterday, having had second thoughts, she said that she had never been happy that her career was cut short by injuries and that she missed the challenge of competing at the highest level.

It may be that she will train hard enough to be fit again for the rigours of life on the Tour. The hope is that she does not turn into just another ex-champion struggling to play from memory.

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