Comebacks can be tricky in tennis. Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati managed to pull theirs off with no real trouble. Bjorn Borg crashed and burned when he tried it.
The tennis world was shocked at the end of 2002 when Martina Hingis hung up her racket at the age of 22, saying she needed time for both her mind and her body to heal. But in sports, time marches on, showing little sympathy for those who stand still. So Hingis' decision to return to tennis after three full years away from the tour was greeted with some skepticism.
Hingis left tennis after undergoing surgery on both ankles, and because of recurring foot problems. But many of her critics also claimed at the time it was because she could no longer handle the power of the Williams sisters and the other big hitters who were beginning to dominate the sport. Asked in July 2005 if Hingis had what it takes to compete in today's game, no less an expert than Billy Jean King replied, "Not sure. That's a question mark."
Ironically, King made the comments while watching Hingis play doubles in a World Team Tennis match in Boston. Coming up moments later was an eagerly awaited singles match between Hingis and the woman she was named after, Martina Navratilova. It was a much publicized first meeting of two of the sport's legends, but the match never lived up to the hype. Hingis won 5-0, bageling the then 48-year-old Navratilova with ease. It was probably more of a taste of things to come than anybody knew at the time.
Hingis did return to the main tennis tour and has now completed her first year of competition, having played in 20 tournaments crisscrossing the globe from Australia to Madrid. She lost 19 of her matches, but won an amazing 53 of them. She won two tournaments, got to two other finals, reached the quarter finals of two majors and captured a grand slam mixed doubles title. She even wound up among the eight women who qualified for the year end championships.
But how about the big question: could she compete with the big hitters? Hingis recorded victories over Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Petrova, and Dementieva, all big hitters in the top ten. She also beat Lindsey Davenport in their only meeting and went 1-1 against Venus Williams. She took Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne to three sets. She lost all three of her matches with then world number one Amelie Mauresmo, but made the last two meetings very close three-setters that could have gone either way. For her efforts, she won more than one million dollars in prize money — one of only eight women players this year to cross the million dollar line in earnings.
But with of all of her accomplishments in 2006, the most impressive was the ranking she achieved. She started the year without a ranking and was No. 349 at the start of the Australian Open in January. By November, she'd climbed all the way back up to No. 7 in the world. It may be the greatest one year jump in the rankings of any player in history.
All this is not to say there were no bumps in the road for her. While playing well in Australia and Roland Garros, she had a disappointing Wimbledon and US Open. She lost a final in Montreal to lower-ranked Ana Ivanovic and lost in Seoul (where she was seeded No. 1) to Sania Mirza, a player she had beaten in straights sets in their two previous meetings.
Both of these losses came in the second half of the season, when Hingis seemed to slow down. She did not get her second wind until the year end championships, where she suddenly looked to be playing better tennis than at any time this year. She played three three-setters in three days, winning one of them, but showing improved serving and amazingly aggressive play in each of those matches. Earlier, Hingis had disclosed in an interview that she was suffering from an iron deficiency, something that could have been one cause for her lack of energy in long matches. Hingis, who has never been any more afraid of a microphone than of an opponent's racket, summed up her own year, saying her play in Madrid had vindicated her decision to return to tennis. To her, it proved she could compete against the world's very best players.
So what did 2006 prove to the rest of us? For starters, that the skeptics were wrong. The top girls haven't gotten any weaker. They are still banging the ball very, very hard, much harder than Hingis. But she has found a way to stay competitive with them, as she proved in Madrid. While her second serve still is a liability, her first serve now seems on the border of becoming a weapon. And her aggressiveness definitely is a weapon. Hingis is one of the few players who can successfully serve and volley and she can throw that tactic into the mix to further confuse her opponents. Combined with her creative baseline play, her legendary volleying skills and the lobs and drop shots that made her famous, Hingis, along with new world number one Justine Henin-Hardenne, is the player with the greatest variety of shots in the game.
Yet the key seems to me to be aggressiveness. Moving forward takes two things, courage and energy. She showed the courage in her match against Henin-Hardenne in Madrid, where she flubbed volley after volley, but kept coming in anyway. She lost the first set 2-6 and was down 2-5 in the second, but simply never gave up and wound up pulling out the second set in a tie-breaker. She was able to fight off match points and battle back from another big deficit in the third set against Mauresmo, which also demonstrated her improved conditioning in the wake of a very unfavorable schedule. If she shows up in Australia with both her courage and her improved conditioning, I expect even better results in 2007 than she achieved in 2006.
Finally, there is one more point which needs to be addressed in any appraisal of Martina Hingis' 2006 season. Hingis walked off courts to louder ovations this year than any other woman player. Once tagged by Sports Illustrated as the tennis' biggest villain, Hingis has become one of its most beloved players. Her smile, once called an arrogant smirk by many journalists, is now cherished by all those who missed the upbeat personality she brings to tennis. Even her severest critics have become fans to greater or lesser degrees. For many, it's because Hingis brings back clever, stylish play to a sport that had come to be dominated by "big babes" who can hit the cover off the ball, but also hit it out as often as they hit it in.
Once mentored by Chris Evert, Hingis is one of the heirs of Evert's tennis legacy. She is an average-sized woman who simply has great on-court savvy and remarkable athletic skills. She succeeds without overwhelming power and that gives hope to normal size players, both amateur and pro alike.
Hingis has appreciated the warmth she has been shown by fans around the world and gives off every sign that she is working hard to continue to deserve their affection. She also continued to show a social conscience in 2006. In Calcutta, India, Hingis not only won a tennis tournament, but found time to visit the shrine of Mother Teresa and donate funds to an orphanage. Her work with children, especially the world's poverty stricken children, means that tennis now has back in the fold one of its very best ambassadors.
– Written by Tony Profumo