- Joel Drucker
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Here is a common phrase tennis players utter after they've played for the first time after being away from competition: not bad considering the layoff. Not bad. The bar has been set low. Anything plausible is acceptable.
But then, the thrill wears off, reality hits, and expectations can exceptionally fog up the picture.
So now, in 2007, does reality hit or reality bite for Martina Hingis? When she announced plans to compete in 2006, the tennis world held its breath. More than three years after playing a competitive match, how would a player who'd relied more on guile than power adjust? Former world No. 1 Tracy Austin, having suffered several injuries and attempted several of her own comebacks, said, "I was delighted to see her give it a go. She was willing to put herself on the line and enjoy the game she obviously loved so much."
Hingis' comeback was superb. In the first half of the year, she reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and French Open, won the Italian Open and earned wins over such hard-hitting, top-notch players as Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport.
"I've exceeded my own expectations and am happy to be playing good tennis once again," Hingis said last year. "I've got a couple of things I have to work on and I'll go where this takes me."
2007 began with another quarterfinal run at the Australian and a title in Tokyo. Hingis is currently ranked No. 7 in the world. On the personal side, she's engaged to ATP pro Radek Stepanek, although no wedding date has been announced. In many ways, Hingis is much more at ease with herself than she was during her glory years as one of the world's very best players. Gone are the days of catty comments between her, the Williams sisters and other occasional rivals. Gone are the days of Hingis, tennis' smart girl, attempting to be a tennis Spice Girl with Anna Kournikova.
But also likely gone are the days of Hingis' being considered a major contender at every Slam she enters. Boris Becker once referred to tennis years as dog years, and to acknowledge that it has been a decade since Hingis' dominant 1997 campaign -- she won three of the four majors, losing only in the French Open final -- is to see indeed how rapidly things change in tennis.
"There weren't as many big serves back then," Austin said. "People didn't hit as big off the ground either."
Certainly in many ways the invariable upgrades in power that occur have made life difficult for Hingis. But this was even happening while Hingis was in her teens. Her emergence, in the latter half of the '90s, coincided with the last parts of Steffi Graf's brilliance, the resurgence of Monica Seles and the ascent of Davenport and the Williams sisters. Hingis' entire career has been a rear-guard defense against those who hit harder. At her best, she was the consummate expression of brains over brawn.
Alas, in large part, what's happening with Hingis' tennis now is the outgrowth of what happened to her in the wake of 1997. The key to her reaching the top that year was her sense of enterprise and diversity. Hingis then was always looking to create, whether it be with a spontaneous sortie to the net, a drop shot or a wise mix of spins and paces. "Things just occur to a player like her," said ESPN analyst Mary Carillo.
But by 1998, Hingis already was playing more defensively.
"I have gone from being the hunter to the hunted," she said then.
And on a smaller basis, this is what's happened to her tennis over the past year. The first stages of the comeback in early '06 were compelling, Hingis' all-court agility and craftiness were a breath of fresh air. But even by Wimbledon last summer, her game was becoming more passive.
The good news is that she is dedicated to competing.
"She's been fit, she's been healthy and hasn't suffered the injuries that have taken other players off the tour," said Austin. "She's very consistent."
Hingis indeed put time into her fitness before returning to the tour. What she hasn't done since, though, is look for ways to beef up her game. Her serve, scarcely forceful during Hingis' best days, is still delivered with a motion that doesn't use much of her body weight. Her forehand can betray her and go short at inopportune times.
And yet, even more significantly, in far too many matches over the past year she has let her opponent dictate the tactical terms of each point.
"It's a tough thing to alter you're game when you've been No. 1 in the world," Austin said. "It's pretty tough to be on the tour and retool the service motion, and the rest of her game is something she's very confident and comfortable with."
Hingis can play reasonable defensive tennis, but by relying more on movement than enterprise, passing up repeated chances to come to the net and failing to improve her serve, she currently is more of a clever counterpuncher than a potential Slam champion.
"This year, when she has to defend all her points, will be quite telling," Austin said.
For now, though, Hingis remains a happy warrior. If she hasn't quite returned in grand style, she has at least returned, and while she's no Spice Girl, she's certainly added more seasoning to tennis.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.
11hMichael C. Wright