The tennis world is abuzz with speculation about Martina Hingis’ second comeback.
The timing of the announcement was certainly noteworthy, coming so shortly after her induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame. Usually, players are deep into their retirement when they secure a spot in the elite Newport Club, having accomplished all they wanted to on the tennis court. Hingis had appeared to be enjoying retirement, having seemingly left the game for good in 2007. Although she popped up now and then for exhibitions, and has been a star presence at the World Team Tennis event for many years, she routinely shirked any discussion of a tour-level comeback.
Yet last week, she declared that she will play doubles with Daniela Hantuchova at the Premier tournament in Carlsbad this summer. A few days later, it transpired that she has also entered the doubles draws in Toronto, Cincinnati, New Haven and New York.
“My competitive spirit is still very much alive and I love being out on the court,” said the former world number one. “I feel in good shape at the moment after World Team Tennis.”
There is no denying that Hingis has kept herself in excellent physical condition since leaving the tour six years ago. Age 32, she is possibly even leaner and fitter than when she burst onto the scene as a teenager. But if she simply wants to stoke her competitive fires, why has she committed to so many tournaments? That’s not just a dabble in the game she loves; it’s the heavy schedule of a player who wants to hit peak form in time for the next Grand Slam. Could it be that she is testing the waters for a full-scale singles comeback?
Hingis originally left the game in 2002, plagued by injuries caused by inappropriate footwear. She made a brief but unsuccessful comeback in 2005, playing a small event in Thailand and losing her only match, but returned to the tour proper at the beginning of 2006. Hingis left the stage the following year after testing positive for cocaine, opting not to spend time and money fighting allegations she always claimed were false.
Perhaps the reason for this second comeback lies therein. Does the nature of her previous exits still rankle with the woman whose confidence-bordering-on-cockiness was renowned? She may feel that, both in 2002 and 2007, she was pushed out of the game due to circumstances beyond her control. Chronic injury and a dubious drug test are sobering and mundane career-enders for someone who set the world alight in the late 1990s. Feted by fans worldwide for her astonishing talent and tennis nous, it must have been difficult for Hingis to see her blaze of glory extinguished, not once but twice. Another stretch as a top competitor would giver her a chance to leave the game on her own terms.
So far, Hingis has talked only about doubles, but there would be no shortage of support should she decide to return to the singles circuit again. Many pundits have remarked that she still has the game to be a top 30 player at the very least – at World Team Tennis, she schooled the likes of rising star Eugenie Bouchard with ease. But while a singles comeback would put her centre stage once more, we shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t only injury and a failed drugs exam that forced her out before.
The Swiss Miss might have marched to five Grand Slam singles titles as a teen, but by the turn of the century she was being overtaken by the new generation of power players. Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters were the main thorns in her side, not only beating her, but wearing down her resistance and appetite for the fight. The last straw came in Melbourne in 2002. Having negotiated her way to the Australian Open final, she led Jennifer Capriati by a set and 4-0 and held four match points before succumbing yet again to a big-hitter. Demoralised and facing the ignominy of also-ran status on the WTA Tour, the ankle and foot injuries provided a convenient excuse for retirement.
In the mid-2000s, a window opened on the women’s tour. Venus and Serena were inconsistent, Justine Henin’s health was in question, and many big titles were being won by unthreatening players such as Anastasia Myskina. Hingis took advantage. Her 2006 comeback year brought trophies in Rome and Kolkata, as well as wins over Davenport, Venus and Maria Sharapova, and she reclaimed a place in the top ten. It wasn’t exactly 1997 again, but it did seem possible that, given a favorable draw and some luck, she could get her hands on another piece of Grand Slam silverware.
But aside from a quarter-final showing at the Australian Open and a title in Tokyo, her 2007 was mediocre. A hip injury and various other niggles didn’t help, but the strain of playing full-time and facing ever-younger, ever-stronger opponents took its toll on Hingis. By the time she announced the drug test result in November of that year, she had fallen to 18th in the rankings. For a second time, off-court circumstances masked the fact that she could no longer compete at the highest level.
If Hingis is considering another singles comeback in 2013, the timing seems less than propitious. The WTA Tour is as stable at the top as it has been in years. Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova have won six of the last seven Grand Slams, and win the vast majority of the other big tournaments. The achievements of world number four Agnieszka Radwanska, similar in style and stature to Hingis, suggest that there is still a place for imaginative counterpunchers in the women’s game. Yet the Pole has worked tirelessly to get to where she is, much harder than Hingis ever had to in her prime.
Of course, Hingis might have absolutely no intention of a singles comeback 2.0. Famously smart, she will be well aware of what it takes to thrive in women’s tennis these days. There may be more thirty-something players at the top than ever before, but none of them got there without enduring the constant grind of workouts, training, and travelling. Reentering that world would be an incredibly brave move for a player who lacked the stomach for the fight in 2002 and 2007.
Fans will relish the chance to see Martina Hingis back in doubles action, and she has a realistic shot at the US Open title if she and Hantuchova gel and build momentum this summer. But doubles is definitely her best route to a final tennis triumph; an against-the-odds return to the singles court would almost certainly be anticlimactic. Few people, least of all Hingis herself, want to see her lose in Linz when she once wowed Wimbledon.