Winning return? Quitting while you're ahead

She was Wimbledon's youngest champion of the 20th century, a winner of five Grand Slams with nothing to prove: but Martina Hingis is making a comeback. Judging by history, it is almost bound to end in failure. By John Roberts
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The Independent Online

When the 14-year-old Martina Hingis was about to make her professional debut in 1994 her mother/coach, Melanie Molitor, was asked if she had gleaned anything from the wreckage of the career of a previous prodigy, Jennifer Capriati.

Molitor responded that Capriati was from a different culture ­ American as opposed to European ­ and said that her daughter, born in Slovakia and groomed in Switzerland, would be able to deal with the demands on her body and mind. This was despite warnings from Martina Navratilova, in honour of whom she was given her first name, that Hingis's developing limbs would not be able to withstand the rigours of the WTA Tour.

At 16, Hingis became the youngest world No 1 and the youngest Wimbledon champion of the 20th century, and went on to win a total of five Grand Slam singles titles. The finesse of her game enraptured spectators. Until, in 2002, aged 22, after two operations to her ankles and having been overpowered by bigger, stronger rivals, notably the Williams sisters, she was forced to retire. She had won £10m in prize-money and millions more from endorsements.

Three years later, Hingis is planning a comeback at 25. She has nothing to prove, except perhaps to herself, and unless her serve has been strengthened by some magical power she risks tarnishing her image.

From the moment she won the French Open junior title at the age of 12, Hingis was a breath of fresh air. While most players let the racket do the talking, Hingis from the start was eloquent when discussing her play and those of her opponents in her broken English, in Swiss-German or even in high German.

Brought up by her mother to stick up for herself at all times, Hingis at times would seem arrogant for one so young and slight. She was forgiven for this because of her gifts, her ability to perform in a manner that seemed to have passed decades earlier. She almost caressed the ball and made angles like a geometry mistress. Her serve was her only weakness. However, if she put the ball in play her wonderful capacity to read the game and anticipate her opponent's moves made up for her lack of physical power.

Hingis says that she wants to challenge herself again to see if he is able to stay healthy and match her skills against players currently at the top of the game. Many of them, such as the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport, were around when Hingis was at her peak. If she succeeds in her mission she will enhance the sport. If her body lets her down, however, she is likely to be overpowered just as she was in her latter days before departing to have some fun away from the demands of life as a leading sportsperson.

Capriati, who was in self-imposed exile at the age of 18 when Hingis arrived on the scene, had everything to prove when she made a comeback to the game in 1996. Her return was a journey for redemption, and the road was long and paved with bad memories. Having been given special dispensation by the WTA Tour to start her professional career in Boca Raton, Florida, aged 13 and 11 months, in 1990, the American "phenom" already had the physique and the big-hitting game to make an impact. A semi-finalist at her first Grand Slam tournament, the French Open, Capriati went on to reach the last four at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1991.

The following year, Capriati won the singles gold medal at the Barcelona Olympic Games, defeating Steffi Graf in the final. After which the pressure on Capriati to win a Grand Slam title increased, particularly at the US Open, where she was criticised for relying on power rather than developing an all-round game.

Weighed down with expectation and desperate to enjoy life as a teenager, Capriati rebelled. She was arrested for shoplifting and later spent time at a drugs rehabilitation centre.

On her return to tennis, she spent most of her time apologising for her past behaviour and became trapped in a spiral of self-deprecation. Her lack of self-esteem extended to the tennis court, where, cutting a fuller figure, she rapidly became a forlorn competitor, rarely advancing beyond the second round of major championships.

The way in which Capriati was able to raise herself to triumph at the Australian Open and French Open in 2001, at 25 ­ Hingis's age now ­ and become world No 1 is one of the most inspiring stories in the annals of sport. The following year Capriati made a successful defence of the Australian Open title and continued to be a force in the game until injuries took a toll at the end of last year.

Monica Seles, Hingis's idol as a child, was forced out of the game after an attack by a deranged supporter of her chief rival, Graf. Seles was world No 1 when she was stabbed in the back by Günther Parche during a change-over in a match against Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg on 30 April 1993.

Aged 19, Seles had won eight Grand Slam singles titles, the latest at the 1993 Australian, defeating Graf in a hard-hitting final. Noted for hitting two-handed ground-strokes on both wings and grunting as she played her shots, Seles lacked only the Wimbledon title to complete a set of the major championships.

After the stabbing there were doubts that she would ever play again. Karolj Seles, her father and coach, was diagnosed with cancer, from which he died in 1998, and when the wound in her back healed Monica continued to have flashbacks of the stabbing. Her rehabilitation was not helped by a German court's decision not to punish Parche with a custodial sentence.

It took 27 months, including sessions with a sports psychologist, for Seles to return to tennis, saying: "I don't just want to be known as the one who was stabbed, the one who grunted."

Starting with an exhibition match against Navratilova in Atlantic City in July 1995, Seles went on to make her WTA Tour comeback in August 1995, co-ranked No 1 with Graf, winning her first event, the Canadian Open, as a wild card. Only weeks later, Seles advanced to the US Open final, losing an emotion-charged contest against Graf. At the end of January 1996, Seles won the Australian Open. She was 23 and it was to be her ninth and last Grand Slam title.

But Seles gained something other than trophies and prize-money. During her teenage years she was perceived by many to be a brilliant but irritating player. After her comeback she became arguably the most popular player in the sport. A finalist at the French Open in 1998, she continues to be listed among active players, although injuries have kept her out of the game since she lost in the first round at the 2003 French Open tournament.

Navratilova, who won a record ninth Wimbledon singles title in 1990, at the age of 33, was denied a 10th title by Conchita Martinez, of Spain, in the 1994 final. Navratilova retired at the end of that year, aged 38, her final appearance at the Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden, New York, being marked by Martina Navratilova Night on 15 November.

The greatest female champion in history was presented with a Harley-Davidson, but she did not exactly ride off into the sunset. Two years later Navratilova won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon, partnering Jonathan Stark, of the United States, before leaving the scene until 2000, when she returned to the WTA Tour to play doubles. In 2002 Navratilova made a one-off return to singles at Eastbourne and in 2003 she won mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon with Leander Paes, of India. That success at Wimbledon enabled Navratilova to equal Billie Jean King's record of 20 All England Club titles.

Navratilova played singles at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2004, and she competed in the doubles tournaments again this year, aged 48.

Perhaps the strangest comeback was that of Renee Richards, an ophthalmologist, who in 1977 was admitted to the women's singles, having competed in the men's singles at Wimbledon and Forest Hills in the early 1960s as Richard Raskind.

How four tennis comebacks fared

JENNIFER CAPRIATI

Major singles titles before leaving the scene in 1994: Olympic Games singles gold.

Major singles titles after returning to WTA Tour in 1996: Australian Open 2001 and 2002, French Open 2001.

Highest world ranking before 1994: No 6, 1991.

Highest world ranking after 1996: No 1, 2001.

MONICA SELES

Major singles titles before stabbing in 1993: French Open (3), US Open (2), Australian (3).

Major singles titles after comeback in 1995: Australian Open 1996.

Highest ranking before stabbing: No 1.

Highest ranking after comeback: co-No1 with Steffi Graf, 1996.

MARTINA NAVRATILOVA

Major singles championships before retirement in 1994: Wimbledon (9), US Open (4), French Open (2), Australian Open (3).

Major singles titles after comeback in 2004: 0.

BJORN BORG

Major singles titles before retiring in 1983: French Open (6), Wimbledon (5).

Major singles titles after comeback in 1991: 0.

Highest singles ranking before retiring: No 1.

Highest singles ranking after comeback: No 797.

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