By Tim Casey
NEWPORT, R.I. -- A day before her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Martina Hingis stood in the second floor of the venue's museum posing for photos, in a room filled with mementos honoring her career. As cameras clicked, the 32-year-old admired an exhibit made in her honor.
One glass case held the Yonex Pro RD 70 Long racket with four broken strings she used to win the 1997 Australian Open, along with the Sergio Tacchini shirt, skirt and sneakers she wore. Another case included trophies presented to Hingis for capturing the 1997 Wimbledon and U.S. Open. That year, Hingis became the youngest Grand Slam singles champion in the 20th century and the youngest player ranked number-one in the world.
Glancing at the display, Hingis turned to a museum staffer.
"I don't remember these trophies," Hingis said, laughing.
The next day, July 13, during a news conference, a reporter asked about that nearly flawless 1997 season. Recalling her style and outfits as a 16-year-old, Hingis smiled.
"I just don't like to look at the photos sometimes," she said.
All weekend, Hingis was in a jovial mood, celebrating her past and seemingly content with her place in tennis history. Only she wasn't ready to give up the sport.
Three days after the induction ceremonies, Hingis accepted a wild card to play doubles with Daniela Hantuchova in the Southern California Open. The tournament, held next week in Carlsbad, will be Hingis's first WTA appearance since she retired for a second time in 2007, after testing positive for cocaine.
The same night of her announcement, Hingis helped the Washington Kastles defeat the Philadelphia Freedoms in a World TeamTennis match, in front of a few hundred fans at Villanova's on-campus basketball gym. The quirky summer league, in its 38th season, features players of both genders on the same squads and odd rules such as no-ad scoring and no net cords. Between points, hits from the 1990's -- Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison", House of Pain's "Jump Around", DJ Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat" -- blared from the loudspeakers. This wasn't Wimbledon, or for that matter any professional tournament.
Before heading to a table to sign autographs for kids attending the match, Hingis admitted she missed competing on the biggest stages.
"I always was thinking about [returning]," Hingis said. "I had it in the back of my head in the last five, six years."
Is this the start of a full-time comeback?
"Right now, it's Carlsbad and then we'll see," Hingis said. "Obviously if we do well, we'll continue. But it's one at a time, nice and slow."
Hingis later committed to play doubles at the New Haven Open, which starts on Aug. 16. Asked about the U.S. Open, Hingis was unsure of her plans. She was sure, however, that she had no desire to play singles again.
"Oh, no, no, no -- singles is a whole different ballgame," she said.
Hingis first seriously considered returning a few months ago, when she spent several weeks coaching Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, one of the top 25 women players in the world. She had played in World TeamTennis the past few years and won some doubles tournaments for retired players with Lindsay Davenport, including at this year's French Open and Wimbledon.
Hitting with Pavlyuchenkova and being around the WTA, though, fueled Hingis's competitive desire. Hantuchova, a good friend and former doubles partner, had been nagging Hingis to play again for a long time, too.
During the spring, Hingis visited former top doubles player Murphy Jensen at his tennis center in Sea Island, Georgia. The two trained together, and Hingis helped coach some of the junior players. Jensen, who is now coaching Hingis with the Kastles, marveled that Hingis remained in great shape and still had a versatile repertoire.
"Martina Hingis right now is a top 10 player in the world," Jensen said. "[She's] probably top five in doubles, if not top five in singles. She never beats herself…. What makes her special is her tennis IQ, her intelligence. She's constantly solving equations. She's the perfect mind for tennis."
Hingis's foes have always admired her smarts on the court, a gift she attributes to the fact that she began playing at two years old, training in Czechoslovakia and Sweden with her mother, Melanie Molitor, who had named her daughter after Martina Navratilova. Hingis first visited the U.S. for the 1994 U.S. Open junior singles tournament, which was also the first time she played on hard courts. As the top seed, and reigning French Open and Wimbledon junior champion, Hingis lost in the finals to American Meilen Tu. Hingis displayed a complete game but petulant demeanor.
"She was a better player [than Tu]," said Stan Smith, the head of the USTA's junior development program at the time. "She lost because her attitude wasn't great, but she could hit all of the shots. Most girls, particularly, are one-dimensional. She just had an instinct of hitting the right shot at the right time."
Hingis turned pro in October 1994, two weeks after her 14th birthday. Asked last week about her career highlights, Hingis quickly mentioned her first pro singles victory in October 1996, in Filderstadt, Germany. The reason? Besides money, she won a Porsche.
Soon, she was nearly impossible to beat, ascending to the top of the WTA singles rankings in March 1997. She only lost one Grand Slam singles match that year, when Iva Majoli snapped Hingis's 37-match winning streak in the finals of the French Open -- only a few weeks after Hingis had undergone arthroscopic surgery on her left knee, after falling off her horse.
From 1998 to 2001, Hingis advanced to at least the semifinals of 13 out of 16 Grand Slam singles tournaments, but she only won two, the 1998 and 1999 Australian Opens. By that time, the women's game was featuring more powerful players like Venus and Serena Williams. At 5-foot-7 and a thin 130 pounds, Hingis didn't hit her serve and groundstrokes as hard as others, but her all-around skills were without compare.
Still, she suffered through injuries, including surgeries on her right ankle in October 2001, and left ankle in May 2002. Hingis retired in February 2003, when she was 22.
Three years later, Hingis returned and won the 2006 Australian Open mixed doubles tournament, the last of her 15 Grand Slam titles (five singles, nine doubles and one mixed doubles). She reached as high as sixth in the singles rankings, but her comeback didn't last long. During a November 2007, news conference in which she took no questions, Hingis revealed she had tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon, stunning the tennis community.
Instead of fighting the two-year ban, Hingis retired, although she has vehemently denied ever using drugs. Since then, she has remained mostly away from the spotlight but continued being around the sport, through coaching and competing in World TeamTennis. She was named the league's most valuable female player last summer and will likely attain the same honor this year.
Earlier this month, Hingis received unwanted worldwide attention when her husband spoke to a Swiss newspaper, a few days before the Hall of Fame ceremonies. Thibault Hutin, an equestrian from France who married Hingis in December 2010, accused her of infidelity. He didn't accompany Hingis to Newport for the induction.
Hingis didn't show any outward signs of disgust or regret that weekend. Speaking to the crowd for four minutes on July 13, she told a story about how her mother chose tennis as a way for Hingis to escape Communism in Czechoslovakia and see other countries.
"Thank you, Mom, again," Hingis said. "You gave me life. You gave me love. You gave me tennis. You gave me everything you could give me."
The fans applauded. Hingis paused.
"And thank you, tennis," she then said. "You gave me the world. And now, I honestly am just out of words because there are no words to explain what I feel that you chose to give me a place here for eternity."
Hingis's love of the sport was evident, but her announcement to return after such a long layoff surprised most observers. It won't be too shocking, however, if Hingis fares well in her comeback. After all, she was once the top doubles player in the world, including victories in all four Grand Slam tournaments in 1998. And her recent results show she is still fit, intelligent and competitive.
"I think there is some opening [to play well], definitely," Hingis said. "I'm not saying that I'm going to be world changing, but it's like, I think I can play really smart. We'll see. I'll give it a try. I have nothing to prove. If it goes well, great. If not, I mean, I had a great career."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.