Hingis revitalised and ready for return to the most unforgiving arena of all

Women's game will not slow down for former world No 1 after a three-year exile from the court. John Roberts reports
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"Bring it on!" is the slogan of the early season tournaments, culminating with the Australian Open and featuring the comeback this week of Martina Hingis, who has been there, done that, and has the trophies to prove it.

The crux is whether the 25-year-old, whose serve was weaker than her ailing feet in 2002 when she quit the sport, is capable of bringing on anything approaching the stylish play that made her a champion prodigy.

As Hingis admitted on the eve of the Mondial Australian Women's Hardcourt Championships at the Gold Coast resort of Royal Pines: "If I play the tennis I played three years ago, I will not survive. You have to have a serve to be able to survive today. I know that. You have to grow with the game and you have to get better, physically and tennis-wise."

So there she was, working on the practice courts with her Swiss compatriot, Patty Schnyder, the defending champion, and the French player Tatiana Golovin, her doubles partner, in preparation for her opening match against Maria Vento-Kabchi, a diminutive 31-year-old Venezuelan ranked 63rd in the world.

"I've had a very nice quiet life back home without the stress and travel," Hingis said, "but I miss playing, I miss the game. I'd wake up in the morning and sometimes I'd have no reason to wake up, and that's what I was missing. I'm taking a risk, but I'm willing to take it.

"I love the challenge and if I can survive, great, but if not, it's not a drama. There's worse things that can happen to me."

Before the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, cut loose with their booming serves and pounding ground-strokes, Hingis was able to enchant spectators with the geometry of her shot-making and her poetic reading of the game.

The youngest French Open junior champion, at 12, she went on to become the youngest world No 1 (at 16 years and six months) and to win five Grand Slam singles titles among a total of 76 singles and doubles titles. Career prize money of $18.35m (£10.66m) put her third behind Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.

Hingis has experienced "highs and lows" during her three-year exile. "The highs are that I was considerably healthy, not playing professional sport but enjoying my time with my horses, with skiing, with doing other things, with passing a test [at college]. Those are different highs I set myself in my life. I was always very happy if I always got better at whatever I was doing.

"And the lows were also there, like when flying from Zurich to Miami, throwing up. That doesn't feel great. I felt like, 'Oh, I've got to change my life sometime, somewhere'. I think you have to always go through stages when you don't feel that good to realise that you want to be healthy and do something for your body, what's the best for you."

When returning after undergoing ankle surgery for the first time, Hingis remarked that the game seemed much faster. Now she will have to adjust to the changes in pace that have occurred during her three-year absence.

"Well," she said, "we've had the stories in the past that Jennifer [Capriati] and Monica [Seles] came back and were able to compete at the highest level again. Jennifer made it to No 1, which she had not reached before. But, of course, she was 16 when she stopped and 20 when she came back. It's a different story with me being 25. But if you look, Mary Pierce has had one of her best years and Lindsay Davenport is still at the top, and the Williams sisters are there. Those are the same players I was competing against, so hopefully I can do the same again.

"In today's sport it's becoming harder and harder to dominate for the entire year, because there have been so many injuries and surgeries. I don't think I would be happy just to be running behind everybody, but the first test is more about if my body holds together in the first few tournaments. I can only train as hard as I can and put myself in the best position possible to compete with the best and come back to the highest level I can with the top players.

"The game has changed and has become more physical. I can't allow myself to have any weaknesses. I'm working on that. I don't want to set myself into a kind of frame where I would be disappointed or [would] reach over the top."

Her goal for the next six months is "to stay healthy and for my feet to stay in shape". "Martina is in good condition," was the word from Dr Heinz Buhlmann. "We have no health problems at the moment."

Asked if she would have been able to come back if her lawsuit against the sportswear manufacturer Sergio Tacchini had not been settled, Hingis replied: "I have nothing to do with that."

Consistency was the hallmark of Hingis' success. Now she may have to brace herself against the possibility of a run of losses.

"I hope it won't happen," she said. "In the last three years I think I've gained some confidence in my life outside tennis and I think, or I hope, I can handle that. I've been able to handle it in the past, and it's not only tennis in my life any more. That's what I realised. I still love the game so much, but really there's worse things out there in the world than losing a tennis match."

Given the recent history of injuries to leading players, and her own painful experience in the past, it may be prudent for Hingis to ration her tournaments and avoid playing several weeks without a break.

Prior to leaving for Australia, Hingis trod a familiar path. She was coached by her mother, Melanie Molitor, who runs a tennis academy in Zurich.

"My mother has some good coaches and some good juniors there to practise with," she said. "I'm very grateful that my mom and Mario [Molitor's partner] were always behind me, no matter what kind of decision I made. Three years ago we sat down and they said, 'Well, it's probably better if you take some time off'. And it took me three years to make the decision to come back.

"They were always helpful. It is my game, my mom is my coach again, and I'm very happy about that because nobody knows my game as well as she does. They are the biggest supporters I have, and I can rely on them."

Hingis said she made her decision to return to the sport in three stages. "It was a procedure," she explained. "Having played Team Tennis, having played a few exhibitions and having watched the Zurich tournament live I felt that if I can compete at that level in Team Tennis and still felt pretty OK and could put more input in my work on the practice court, hopefully I could compete with the best again."

Maria Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champion, is one player in particular whom Hingis is looking forward to competing against.

"I've never played her," she said. "I want to see what she's got. Last time I was on a court with her she was 12 years old. I was 17 at the time. We practised together, and I won the year-end WTA Tour Championships right after that.

"Maria has a different game, so it will be interesting if one of these days I play against her, you know, to see what type of game is better. But I think I have to take small steps, slowly but surely. Right now if you ask me who will win, I can't answer."

One thing is certain: Hingis could not have chosen a better country for her comeback. She reached the women's singles final at the Australian Open on six consecutive occasions from 1997 to 2002, winning three times, in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

Her next tournament en route to Melbourne Park will be at Sydney, where she has also won three times.

Changing places Top 10 then and now

2002 WTA Tour final rankings

1 Serena Williams

2 Venus Williams

3 Jennifer Capriati

4 Kim Clijsters

5 Justine Henin-Hardenne

6 Amélie Mauresmo

7 Monica Seles

8 Daniela Hantuchova

9 Jelena Dokic

10 MARTINA HINGIS

2005 WTA Tour final rankings

1 Lindsay Davenport

2 Kim Clijsters

3 Amélie Mauresmo

4 Maria Sharapova

5 Mary Pierce

6 Justine Henin-Hardenne

7 Patty Schnyder

8 Elena Dementieva

9 Nadia Petrova

10 Venus Williams

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