(July 23, 2010) Striking shots with mischievous intentions, Martina Hingis was up to her old tricks again. Playing against her former team, the New York Sportimes, in Monday night's World TeamTennis match on Randall's Island in New York City, the former World No. 1 was doing her best to drive her opponents up the wall.
Hingis, whose anticipation is still so sharp it sometimes seems she's playing a point she's already seen on TiVo, pulled out the seldom-seen lob volley to send reigning US Open champion Kim Clijsters scampering back to the baseline in pursuit.
Playing a point like this one against Hingis on the multi-colored court can feel like coming home to find the complete contents of your living room had been rearranged — everything is still right there somewhere, but you're perplexed by the positions you find yourself in while searching to make sense of it all.
The 29-year-old Hingis, the marquee player for the New York Buzz, and Scoville Jenkins built a 2-1 lead over Clijsters and John McEnroe in mixed doubles when Hingis, who was set to serve the fourth game, made an executive decision in installing doubles partner Sara Borwell as her replacement. Borwell held serve and the Buzz went on to win the mixed doubles, 5-3.
On a night when Clijsters overpowered Hingis, 5-2, in a battle of former World No. 1 players, Hingis wasn't always at her best, but showed flashes of the form that makes her one of only six women to hold the World No. 1 ranking in singles and doubles simultaneously.
It was a homecoming of sorts as Hingis, who led the New York Sportimes to the 2005 WTT championship and earned MVP finals honors in the process, returned for her lone New York City appearance.
And while her serving was spotty, she looked a little tight at times and spent some of her down time alternating between sending text messages and tapping her toes against the court while listening to the music played between serves, there was no mistaking the satisfactory smile the Swiss displayed after winning imaginative points.
While she concedes missing the competition, Hingis said she remains well aware of the time, work and dedication reaching the top 10 requires.
"Tennis, it takes you on," Hingis said during Wimbledon, where she partnered with olf friend and former "Spice Girls" doubles partner Anna Kournikova in the Ladies Legend doubles evnet. "Like I said, I mean, they come, they go, they have big serves, different kind of game. For me, it was much more work behind the scenes than the Williams sisters."
At her best, Hingis suffers a confidence crisis about as often as Atlas visits a chiropractor, but she got a real WTT wake-up call in her return to competition earlier this month. Hingis struggled to find her game in singles, but has picked up her play, particularly in doubles, as the season has progressed.
"The beginning was slightly rough," said Hingis, who ran out of racquets in her first match and had to borrow Borwell's Babolat to complete a match against the Venus Williams-led Washington Kastles. "I just came over from Europe and started playing straight away. But after I got into into and started playing a few matches I started feeling better. And we won some doubles matches as well."
Competing is still a Buzz, but the off the court work required for a touring pro — the endless practice sessions, training in the game and constant travel — no longer interests Hingis, who spends a lot of her spare time pursuing her passion: riding horses.
"What I miss is probably the winning moments — when you hold up the trophy and you know you are the best in the world and you end up winning Grand Slams. That is probably the moment an athlete is most happy," Hingis said. "You miss that, but you know that getting to that point takes a lot of years, a lot of hard work, a lot of practice. It doesn't come from heaven. You never forget how much work, how much pain, you go through to get there."
In WTT play, Hingis showed signs of the guile, touch and court sense that made her the top player in the world. Those elements can make her a successful doubles player. Hingis' shallow serve — by far the biggest weakness in her game — was exposed at times during near two-year return to the WTA Tour, but her serve is not nearly as big a liability in doubles where more often than not she can gauge where the return is coming. Additionally, if Hingis can partner with a younger, bigger-serving partner it will allow her to use her superb net skills in doubles.
So will she attempt a partial comeback to the WTA Tour as a doubles specialist?
"Well, that was always the question. I mean early on I talked to Lindsay [Davenport] about it and maybe we could do it and get some wild cards," Hingis said. "But she already committed very early, in March, and I didn't want to. So she is going to play Stanford and San Diego and she wanted someone to commit really soon. I just wasn't ready for that. I wanted to see how it goes. I played some exhibitions in England. I just wanted to see how I feel."
It could be the latest chapter in a career that has seen Hingis capture five Grand Slam singles titles and eight major doubles titles. Hingis won 43 singles and 37 doubles championships in a career that began 16 years ago. She hasn't ruled out the prospect of playing limited doubles events as Davenport has done.
"Yeah, I'm thinking that I just might. But you need the partner as well, right?" Hingis said.
Hingis competes in some of the smaller equestrian events in Europe — "It is a passion and it stays a passion. It's a hobby I don't (pursue it professionally)," she — sometimes hits with juniors at her mother's tennis academy and still follows the pro circuit on TV and the internet, but spoke like a woman who appreciates the flexibility of her schedule these days. "You have a lot more time for your life and also been what I don't really miss is the travel," Hingis said. "Having to go week-to-week; the grind. I loved it when I was 17, but it's a bit different at 30." At the age of 14 Hingis made her professional in Zurich in 1994. Receiving a wild card into the main draw, the 378th-ranked Hingis beat American Patty Fendick, 6-4, 6-3, to record her first professional victory before bowing to fifth-ranked Mary Pierce, 6-4, 6-0, in the second round. At five-foot-seven, 130 pounds, Hingis was overshadowed by bigger, stronger opponents, but used her greatest weapon — her mind — to compensate for the significant size disparity she often faced. Former World No. 1 Monica Seles once saidHingis constructed points perhaps better than anyone she ever faced. "(My mind) was very important because I wasn't the biggest or strongest so I had to have technique and tactics to be successful," Hingis told us in a past interview. "For me, my mother was always the most important person in helping me. She taught me just every shot — from the time I was a little kid she had me work on every shot. So that (the mental game) was easy because I would go on the court feeling comfortable and secure. I knew I could do it in practice so there was no reason not to be able to do it in the match. I was already pretty confident from the time I was young. My mother would take me to her club and I would play with the kids and even though I was one of the younger ones I always wanted to be one of the best. And I had success at a pretty young age. My personality is very loose in general and I never made big trouble out of big shots. When I would get to a match point, I knew I'd come that far so I knew I could do it (close out the match)."
Tennis Now: Martina, how do you feel about the way you're playing? How has your level evolved as the season has progressed?
Martina Hingis: The beginning was slightly rough. I just came over from Europe and started playing straight away. But after I got into into and started playing a few matches I started feeling better. And we won some doubles matches as well. After that I was on a winning streak until the last one (laughs). Yeah, that was a rough one.
Tennis Now: John McEnroe came back to the ATP Tour a few years back and actually won a doubles title in San Jose. You're such a good doubles player. Why not just come back to the WTA Tour and play some select doubles events?
Martina Hingis: Well, that was always the question. I mean early on I talked to Lindsay [Davenport] about it and maybe we could do it and get some wild cards. But she already committed very early, in March, and I didn't want to. So she is going to play Stanford and San Diego and she wanted someone to commit really soon. I just wasn't ready for that. I wanted to see how it goes. I played some exhibitions in England. I just wanted to see how I feel.
Tennis Now: Would you consider playing doubles events in the future at some point?
Martina Hingis: Yeah, I'm thinking that I just might. But you need the partner as well, right?
Tennis Now: When you watch tennis today, who do you like to watch? Is there anyone who reminds you of you? Anyone who plays the Hingis style, using the angles, the finesse, playing all-court tennis?
Martina Hingis: Well, there's Justine. She's back on Tour again and she plays all court. With the younger players it's hard to tell. It's pretty much one-sided. They pretty much have the same kind of games, so it's tough to tell.
Tennis Now: You had a great rivalry with Serena. Where do you rank Serena among the greatest players you've faced and among the greatest players you've seen?
Martina Hingis: Obviously, she's still at the top. She's a tremendous athlete with enormous power. The strongest part of her game, I would say, would be the mental part. She can hit a huge serve when she needs to. I watched her match against Sharapova at Wimbledon and it was like "Wow!" to see that and to see how she can come up with shots when she needs them.
Tennis Now: Your game is so technically strong. Would you ever consider coaching either on Tour or at an Academy as John is doing with the John McEnroe Tennis Academy?
Martina Hingis: My mom is doing it. So I go there and play with the kids she has. She has probably 150 kids, but I don't play in their daily routine. There's one girl who is probably top in Europe in her age group so that's nice. I mean, my mom's doing it and I'm just trying to help (laughs). I like to help but I don't see myself being a coach. I've done that. I've been there, done that. I'd rather do it myself. But helping out every now and then and going to the big events, why not?