Hingis Redux

Monday, May 22, 2006 /by

OK, there is a story in tennis other than the Rivalry. But it sure wasn't happening on the men’s side this week. Poor Hamburg—after Nadal and Federer drop out, what do the Germans get? Tommy Robredo over Radek Stepanek in a laugher. I’m beginning to fear for the sport if (1) Rafa and Fed don’t reach the French Open final; or (2) neither wins the tournament. I can hear “The New York Times” and other press bandwagoners now—“No, we were right all along, tennis really is boring.”

For the second straight Sunday, the main event happened at the Foro Italico in Rome. That’s where Martina Hingis won the Italian Open, her first title since beginning her comeback in January. In the semifinals, she beat Venus Williams in a fairly ugly match (Williams’ yellow dress looked nice, though). My first reaction as I watched was that these two, who had once been fierce rivals for No. 1—the Nadal and Federer of the women’s game as the decade began—were a solid level below last week’s finalists in Berlin, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Nadia Petrova. Their shots had less pace, their rallies were less complex and explosive. In other words, Hingis can’t be called a favorite to win the French Open quite yet.

At the start of 2006, I would have thought that fact would bother Hingis. I wrote that her biggest hurdle would be accepting losses to players whom she feels she should beat. It’s what made the late career of John McEnroe, a player with Hingis-like talent who was bludgeoned by younger power hitters, so painful to watch—Mac couldn’t stand to be on the same court with a second-tier guy like Brad Gilbert, let alone lose to him. Hingis’ demeanor during her comeback, and particularly this weekend in Rome, makes me think that she’s happy just playing tennis again, no matter what her ranking is.

Hingis’ game looks so right—the clean ball-striking, the uncluttered strokes, even the no-nonsense way she bounces the ball before she sets up to serve—it’s hard to imagine her doing anything else. Her petulant side, which infamously cost her a French Open final to Steffi Graf in 1999, is on display less often. At the same time, she remains a perfectionist who can’t quite believe it when she loses a point—it’s just that now her smile of disbelief doesn’t convey the arrogance it once did. After years of noisy histrionics from the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova, Hingis seems like the most natural and down to earth of the top women. After her win over Dinara Safina yesterday, there was just a sensible celebration and a smile for Mom, nothing more.

It was a pleasure to watch Hingis run Safina around the court. Marat’s little sister had a great week (she beat Elena Dementieva and has quietly crept into the Top 20), but her long, gawky strokes and lumbering moves are cannon fodder for someone with Hingis’ accuracy and cleverness. Martina did what she’s always done best—change direction with the ball at will (has anyone ever done it with such ease?) and get her opponent on the run without aiming for the lines. She started fast, going up 3-0 in the first with a concise backhand swinging volley that wrong-footed Safina. The play summed up the best of Hingis’ game. It was an improvised shot that only a true tennis talent could produce, but at the same time the tactics—hit behind your opponent on clay, don’t go for the lines on a volley—are straight from every coach's textbook.

Hingis is nothing if not human in her on-court reactions, and that includes succumbing to nerves. Despite owning 40 career titles, she couldn’t hold onto a 4-1 second-set lead against Safina. Hingis was visibly tight near the end, and she played tentatively whenever she had the lead, waiting for Safina to miss. Credit the Russian for fighting and hitting big no matter the score, but this was a case of mental rust on Hingis’ part. As she said afterward, “I almost feel like I won my first title.” It takes practice to get your strokes back, but it takes even more work to learn how to win. Hingis served for the match at 5-4 and was broken, then served for it again at 6-5 and went down 0-40. Getting out of that game and closing out Safina was another hurdle cleared in her comeback.

A new one will come in France, of course. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Hingis is a threat there. She’s been to the final twice, and she should be motivated—a victory would give her a career Grand Slam. She now has 31 wins on the year, second only to Petrova. With a good draw, Hingis could easily make the semifinals (she reached the quarters in Australia). As for the other top players, I can see her beating Kim Clijsters, who tends to go off-form at least once every Slam; a nervous-in-front-of-the-home-folks Amelie Mauresmo; and Petrova, who’ll have to deal with real Grand Slam pressure for the first time. On the other hand, I can’t see Hingis beating Henin-Hardenne, and Dementieva has already blitzed the Swiss once earlier this year. So chalk her up as a long shot and a sentimental favorite (though probably not for the French, who booed her off the court against Graf). Like Andre Agassi in Paris in 1999, it would be a highlight-reel moment—and a pretty decent story for tennis bandwagoners in the press—to see the new Hingis exorcise the one lingering ghost from her former life.

Wrap note: I'll try to be back on Saturday with a few predictions (all of them correct this time) for the French Open, which happily starts on Sunday this year. It should be a great tournament, don't you think?

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