Don't call it a comeback ... anymore

While James Blake and Martina Hingis did not win the Pacific Life Open, both players made statements that they can play with the best in the world.

Updated: March 23, 2006, 3:24 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

As members of the massive combined caravan of the men's and women's tours reapply sunscreen during the quick turnaround between Indian Wells and Miami, it's worth considering whether to drop the word "comeback" from future references to James Blake. That time might be swiftly approaching for Martina Hingis, as well.

Neither won at the Pacific Life Open, but heading into this week's NASDAQ-100, both are playing as if they hadn't missed a beat -- or a recent season, or two, or three. What might have appeared to be early-season adrenaline seems to be something with more staying power.

James Blake
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesBlake has moved up 15 spots in the ATP rankings since the start of the season.
Newly minted No. 9 Blake started strongly against No. 1 Roger Federer in the Pacific Life final but bowed in straight sets and was shut out in the third. Nonetheless, Blake broke into the top 10 for the first time in his career and is second in 2006 prize earnings ($417,720) only to Federer ($1.66 million).

The dough and the upper-crust ranking apparently haven't gone to Blake's head. He jokingly told reporters after beating No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the semifinals at Indian Wells that the perk he most wanted was the ability to practice shirtless at the Saddle Brook tennis center in Tampa where only top-10 players were accorded the privilege.

"I don't get to take my shorts off when I get to top five or anything," he said. "No other big incentives."

Indian Wells marked Blake's third final of the season. He won titles in Sydney and Las Vegas earlier this year, the latter following a mini-slump in which he'd been ousted in the first round of back-to-back tournaments.

Blake's solid first quarter may make Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe 's next selection easier and harder -- easier because he has a hot singles player and harder because it makes No. 10 Andre Agassi the odd man out.

Agassi had made it clear he was available for the April 7-9 quarterfinal tie on grass against Chile in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (for the uninitiated, a "tie" is the tennis term for a Davis Cup round). There was a time when all Agassi had to do was raise his hand to book his trip, but Blake has earned his passage and No. 4 Andy Roddick, despite his recent floundering, is as good a bet as anyone on grass (he was 11-1 last year on the surface).

Hingis' next action will take place at a promotional event prior to her first match in Miami, when she'll drive what the NASDAQ-100's marketing folks are describing as "a gas-powered, street-worthy IndyCar Series" vehicle under the tutelage of two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. (He is to receive tennis tips in return.)

Martina Hingis
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesMartina Hingis has a WTA-Tour best 20 wins in 2006.
That's rather apt as Hingis, hands firmly on the steering wheel, is methodically lapping more and more of the women's field with each event. She has reached at least the quarterfinal of all but one of the seven tournaments she has entered this season, the only exception being a first-round loss to current No. 3 Justine Henin-Hardenne in Sydney.

Hingis' quarterfinal defeat of No. 5 Lindsay Davenport was as important a victory as she's had since her comeba... er, re-entry on the scene, even if Davenport did reveal afterwards that she was in pain from a bulging disc. Hingis pushed eventual tournament winner and No. 4 Maria Sharapova in their semifinal match that was, cliché-police forgive us, closer than the 6-3, 6-3 result indicated.

"That's still the deficit I have not having played for three years, not having the stamina," Hingis told reporters. "In a semifinals match, you have to go out there and give it all, not just like for a certain amount of time. I didn't start off like that. Maybe if I had, it would be a different story."

The next questioner inquired about the 18-year-old Sharapova's power. Like the scrappy point guard forever interrogated about how to score over the towering center, Hingis reacted with some weariness. "That's not intimidating anymore,'' she said. "All the players always do the same thing, so you're kind of used to that. She just played really smart today."

Now at No. 26 on the charts and rising fast, Hingis' gas-powered, street-worthy tear through the rankings inevitably raises the question of whether it reflects more about her or about the current state of women's tennis. The Magic 8-Ball would surely answer: Ask again later.

So far, Hingis has done about what you might expect for a fit, motivated, sage 25-year-old player following a long layoff: handled the lower-ranked players and had her hands full against the top 10, where she is 2-6 compared to a 20-7 record overall.

The Miami field will be missing at least two power players -- Davenport, who had planned to play but withdrew citing the back injury, and Serena Williams, who has tumbled to No. 61 and no longer feels the need to cite anything in particular. Jennifer Capriati also is delaying her return to the tour as she continues to rehab a shoulder injury.

Quote of the Week: From Sharapova, inspired by a heckler who hollered out that she looked tired in the match against Hingis: "That kind of pumped me up a little bit. I hit two winners in a row. I looked back at them, and I'm like, 'Tired, my butt.' So don't mess with a truck. You're going to become a pancake."

We Take It Back: Remember all the angry declarations from the Shanghai organizers of the ATP year-end championships last year following the pullout of five top players? Something calmed the ruffled waters, because Shanghai just extended its commitment from three to four years, though 2008. Chinese authorities are promoting a sports theme that year because of the Summer Olympic Games that will take place in Beijing.

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.