Commentary

Guilty or innocent, awful way for Hingis to bow out

She denies ever using drugs and maintains her innocence, but Martina Hingis has become the latest in a growing list of professional athletes who have left their sports under a very dark cloud of suspicion.

Updated: November 1, 2007, 7:16 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | Special to ESPN.com

You could call Martina Hingis a lot of things, but you'd never call her dumb. That's why it was stunning to hear she was retiring because of allegations that she committed a supremely stupid act -- ingesting a party drug sometime around the Wimbledon fortnight.

People rooted for Hingis when she was a teenaged sensation back in the mid- to late-'90s because she brought guile and finesse to what was then increasingly turning into a power game. Her occasional crisp or impudent comments were generally forgiven.

Her match preparation was impeccable. She was a businesslike professional even at 17 -- fit, committed and great at calculating the angles. She exhibited those same traits, along with a more buff physique and a sense of perspective, again when she returned last year at age 26.

[+] EnlargeMartina Hingis
AP Photo/Andy WongMartina Hingis' career ends with 43 titles (including five Grand Slams), two retirements, and one cloud of suspicion.
It would be easier to believe that Hingis took a truly performance-enhancing drug than to imagine her impulsively snorting cocaine after a third-round loss at tennis' most genteel event.

Hingis denied any drug use during her career in a statement issued Thursday, thereby underlining one of the unstated reasons she might have decided to shut things down. In all probability, she knows few people will be inclined to believe her. She might have had a fighting chance a few years ago, before Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones, baseball All-Star Rafael Palmeiro, Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis and others fouled the waters.

The statement also indicated that Hingis has had a chance to observe what happens to athletes who stand and fight -- the time and money it takes and the impossibility of completely bleaching the stain away. That, coupled with her age and the chronic hip pain that has kept her from playing regularly since last spring, prompted her to pull the plug.

As with most doping cases in sports, we're faced with making sense of the seemingly illogical. (We're also left -- again -- with the question of why in hell would it take four months for a drug test to be resolved in tennis when other sports get it done in a fraction of that time.)

Hingis missed the game enough after three years away that she willfully came back last year, risking all the inevitably unflattering comparisons with her younger self. She marched resolutely from rankings oblivion into the top 10 and continued to try to play through pain when things started to unravel this season.

Why, after all that effort, would she risk something even more precious -- her integrity? How could someone so precise on the court be that sloppy?

Hingis didn't ease back into competition in 2006 -- she attacked the schedule like a to-do list. She rocketed to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in her first month back. That May, she beat five top-20 players and an old nemesis, Venus Williams, in the semifinals on an impressive title run in Rome.

Then her comeback season settled into a somewhat predictable pattern. Hingis had focus, stamina and a residual aura that kept her from losing to lesser players, and she routinely sliced and diced her way to later rounds of tournaments. But when it came to the women at the very top, Hingis bumped into the same glass ceiling she probably would have hit if she had never gone away.

Still, watching Hingis go about her job provided a welcome respite from chronicling the woes of the walking wounded on the WTA circuit. There was a sense of controlled urgency about her play, borne of the underlying knowledge that she was living on borrowed court time.

This season began auspiciously for Hingis with a finals appearance in the Gold Coast Australian Open tune-up and a win in Tokyo -- her 43rd, and we'll dare to say, her last WTA championship. She got engaged to endearingly gritty, goofy Czech pro Radek Stepanek. The relationship didn't last and neither did her health.

Lower back and hip problems began to plague Hingis during the clay-court season; she wasn't able to defend her title in Rome, and she pulled out of the French Open. She scraped herself off the disabled list to make an appearance at Wimbledon only, as she freely admitted, because of the significance of the place.

Hingis had to save two match points to beat a callow British wild card in the first round, and when she came in to talk to reporters afterwards, there was a wistful quality to her demeanor. She didn't flinch when she was reminded that it had been 10 years since she won the championship there.

"I was totally pleased with myself at 17," she said. "You think the whole world belongs to you."

At another point, Hingis said she was simply "happy to be able to run and walk and play tennis again. I wasn't able to do that five weeks ago. You know, sometimes simple things make you really happy. That's what happened to me today. Sometimes you realize, you know, that not everything is about winning Grand Slam titles, what it does to you at the end of the day."

If injuries alone had forced Hingis to retire, her comeback would have been remembered as a statement both about her and about the competition. It said a lot about the durability of her shot-making skills and the fierceness of her desire. But it also showed how psychologically porous most of the WTA field is these days, despite the much-vaunted hunger of young starlets from nontraditional tennis nations.

Hingis looked at the level of play from the outside and made what turned out to be an accurate calculation. A woman who knows how to win and relishes the fight can hang in with the best in this sport and make a pretty darn good living in the process, even after a lengthy layoff. We'll probably see more and more second acts in the future -- women taking sabbaticals rather than see-yas, coming back after babies and burnout and bum knees. There's no reason they shouldn't.

This retirement doesn't have that open-ended feel to it. Guilty or innocent, it's an awful way for Hingis to go out.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.