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Former No. 1 and five-time Grand Slam event winner Martina Hingis will make a second comeback this summer, with a very different purpose and under very different circumstances than her first.
Hingis is slated to play several exhibitions this spring -- including participating in the "legends" doubles tournament at Wimbledon, where she will reunite with onetime partner Anna Kournikova -- and a full World Team Tennis season in July with the Albany-based New York Buzz. Her schedule includes matches against both Williams sisters and Kim Clijsters, and she will likely play singles, doubles and mixed doubles. If Hingis, 29, stays healthy, she said she wouldn't rule out playing doubles on the WTA circuit, perhaps with her longtime friend Lindsay Davenport.
Forced from the game by injuries after the 2002 season, the Swiss star spent three years sidelined before returning to the WTA circuit in 2006. She won three tournaments to bring her career titles to 43 and rose to No. 6 in the world before the physical toll of full-time play began to catch up to her again.
In late 2007, she announced that she was stepping away from the game again because of a positive test for cocaine during Wimbledon that year. Hingis vehemently denied using the drug and sought to invalidate the results of the test, but a tribunal convened by the International Tennis Federation rejected her arguments and suspended her for two years. (Unlike the ATP's Richard Gasquet, who received a much shorter suspension for the same offense, Hingis did not present any specific explanation of how the drug could have been in her system, but aggressively attacked the testing procedures.) She never formally retired and became eligible to play again in September 2009.
ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford spoke with Hingis by telephone from Paris last week. Hingis was upbeat, frequently punctuating her comments with laughter, but also admitted how much she has missed the game, her friends in professional tennis, and what she called the "traveling circus" of life on the tour.
Ford: What makes World Team Tennis the right environment for you to come back?
Hingis: I never in the past had the chance to play a lot of team tennis, and when I did it in 2005, we [the New York Sportimes] right away ended up winning the championship. That was a great experience, and I have great memories from that. I just really enjoyed myself, and I said why not try it again? Last time I only played seven matches and the finals, and this time I signed for the whole season. I hope I can manage to go all the way. Physically, I'm five years older as well. I better get things going now. Actually I played [the other day] with [French pro] Camille Pin.
Ford: How is your physical health?
Hingis: At this point I'm feeling really good. I've been hitting some balls, trying to keep myself in good shape. I haven't been playing much the last two years, just a few exhibitions here and there. I played Lindsay in January in Berlin. We played a couple good sets, and I felt good afterwards. If I play a little bit in advance, still have a couple months to go, should be fine.
Ford: Last time you played World Team Tennis, it was in preparation for a comeback to the WTA.
Hingis: At this point I'm not considering coming back. I'll see how all of it goes first; the exhibitions, the team tennis, and then singles would be very difficult. Maybe some doubles.
Ford: So you'll have to see how your body holds up?
Ford: I'm a little surprised, because when you left the game two years ago, your statement was pretty definitive that you weren't coming back. Have you had a change of heart, and if so, why?
Hingis: Yeah, but it's not to come back to play singles and play on the tour full-time. I still love the game. Even now, I only go out and hit when I enjoy, when I have a partner to hit with. I hit with friends. It's completely different. My first comeback was really, like -- I had the motivation, and I really wanted to see if I could still be part of it and belong to the game. I still wanted to prove myself. At this time I have nothing to prove any more. It's because I like playing. [World Team Tennis] is still very competitive, but it's not like you have to go train against the top 10 in the world.
Ford: It sounds like you missed the game in a different way than the first time you were away from it.
Hingis: Last time I felt like I was still young enough to compete with the best in the world. Now, I'm going to turn 30 this year. That's five years down the road. Definitely you have days where you feel like [watching] TV, and that's only normal and that's natural that you feel like that. If I hated tennis, I would feel like I never wanted to hit another ball in my life. But I don't. I want to go out there and play at wherever my level is right now. We'll see how far it takes me. I think I'm still good enough to play exhibitions and team tennis, hopefully. That's completely different than when you play week-in and week-out and have to be on the road full time.
Ford: You mentioned playing an exhibition with Lindsay, and of course Lindsay came back not only after she was 30 years old but after having had a child. Did she encourage you to think about playing again?
Hingis: She sent an e-mail or two, yeah, "You're still playing good enough." At that time we were thinking about playing some doubles together, that's where it came from. We'll see. She's going to be playing team tennis. She [said], "Why don't we play for fun a doubles match or two at a tournament?"
Ford: Martina, the first time you left the game was because of injury, and the second time was because of a suspension. How much of wanting to come back is because you want to do things on your own terms and have a Phase III of your career where you dictate how it goes?
Hingis: I dictated quite a lot of my career. I was 14 when I started and 28 when I left the game. I did my comeback, and I was very proud of what I achieved, and the rest of the way is history.
Ford: It was a down note, the way that you left. Obviously you were not pleased with the way things had gone, so is
Hingis: I mean, nobody would be pleased if you are four years No. 1 in the world and go away like that. But I think people are starting to understand that it was a case of contamination, what was in my system was a speck of dust.
Ford: Do you regret not fighting now?
Hingis: I did fight; that's what people misunderstand. I did fight until I felt like I really didn't have a chance. I did fight the [ITF tribunal] and spent a lot of money on that. If I had continued, I would have been losing a lot more money without having that big of a chance. It's not like I didn't fight it at all.
Ford: In light of Richard Gasquet's case and the lighter punishment he received, do you regret not going further?
Hingis: For me, I have to move on. The two years have passed; I'm moving on with my life. I can't turn back time. That's where I am at this point.
Ford: The first time you were away from the game, you filled your time with riding your horses and skiing, and you seemed to be able to make yourself happy. How did you try to keep yourself fulfilled this time?
Hingis: This time was really hard because I wasn't able to do the things I wanted to do, even the [horseback] riding, because I was banned from all the Olympic sports. I couldn't do equestrian competition, either. It was very difficult to do [tennis] exhibitions because I didn't have permission to go to the grounds or be at the events. That was really hard. It wasn't my choice. I wouldn't wish what happened to me on my worst enemy, is pretty much what I have to say about that. But I'm not much of a person who thinks in the past, I try to move on.
Ford: Are you at all nervous about how you might be received by the public?
Hingis: I'm very optimistic. I think a lot of people have forgotten. There's other things in life than having to follow a tennis star. People hopefully remember the good times and what I have brought to tennis. I've been around for 10 years and accomplished a lot, and I'm proud of that. I'm not going to let anybody take that away from me.