October 17, 2001

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Year to forget for Martina Hingis

Daniel Laidlaw

For Martina Hingis, 2001 has been a year to forget. The most recent loss to Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals of the Kremlin Cup was just the latest disappointing result in a year that has contained all too many of them for the former world No. 1.

Normally, champions have to slip up to be dethroned. Yet for Martina Hingis, whose crown as Princess of the WTA has slipped, there can be no question that she is a better player than she was during that golden breakthrough year of 1997 when unwitting experts forecast a long reign of dominance for the Czech-born genius from Switzerland.

Martina Hingis It is a testament to just how much the women's game has changed in the last five years that Hingis, who would probably be regarded as one of the greatest players to grace a court in any other era, has improved while making considerably less impact on the game than she once did.

Any decline, of course, is relative. After all, you're doing well to be considered in a slump while still officially ranked No. 1 in your profession. But for a player for whom collecting winners' trophies was a regular end-of-tournament ritual, Hingis' situation does resemble a career crossroads of sorts, even if the difficulties faced are nothing new.

The sensationalist American tennis media, for whom personalities and manufactured rivalries are more important than the game, could see the big hitters coming and predicted the petite Martina's demise as early as 1998, the year after she fell just one win short of completing the first Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. Then, it was thought Hingis would soon have another opportunity to attempt the feat.

But after scything through all competitors and achieving superstar status at the tender age of 16, setting innumerable youngest-ever records in the process, Hingis lost a little of her momentum, the "power players" in Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams began introducing themselves, and we got a vision of what the future of women's tennis held.

Serena Williams Let there be no ambiguity. If all Martina's rivals were forced to compete with her size - 170cm, 59kg - and build, she would win nearly every grand slam and be viewed as one of the greatest of all time. 1997 proved that. However, that is not the reality, and tall, muscular, powerful athletes are what must be contended with today. Their names are Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati, and in four years of trying the brilliant tactician Hingis has not found a consistently effective strategy to break down their method.

All the intelligence, court craft, precision and amazing vision to stay two strokes ahead of the rally do not matter a jot when the ball is being thumped past you for winners. There is no way to engage them on her terms.

Melanie Molitor, who must rank as one of the most astute coaches around for the way she has trained her daughter, thinks Martina could do better. When confronted with an opponent who can hit her off the court, Hingis has long switched to a basic game plan, not trying to go forth and dictate like when facing players she knows she can out-hit, but rather playing it safe and waiting for the high-risk power game of her opponents to flounder.

For a time it worked, but as the Williams sister have developed and Capriati re-emerged, the errors have become fewer and Hingis' strategy, stuck on the baseline and always battling to hold serve, has looked increasingly helpless.

Martina Hingis Since she became No. 1, critics have identified Hingis' serve as the major weakness in her game. It starts the point rather than wins it for her, unlike in the men's game and now the elite women's. Her second serve, in particular, sits up for opponents to hammer at will.

The experts say she must develop a more powerful serve and some say she should bulk up to obtain more power in order to compete, but on that point they couldn't be more wrong. Hingis' game has always been about skill, finesse, anticipation and mobility.

No matter how much muscle she builds, she'll still be 5'7" and less powerful than her adversaries, and what's worse she will have lost that mobility and crucial touch that is keeping her competitive in tough matches now. No, the only way for Hingis to return as a force is to enhance her current strengths, and that is not power.

Molitor has said that Martina needs to come into net more often. Martina -who incidentally is the world's finest doubles player, a sublime volleyer who has won 8 grand slam titles with 6 different partners - recognises this and says she does it in practice, but can't translate that approach into the important matches when it is safest to stay in the comfort zone at the back of the court.

But it would be simplistic to think the answer lies in a couple of tactical changes alone. Long-time Hingis watchers have noted subtle changes to her on-court demeanour since she was the carefree teen spirit of '97, a virtual age ago.

The more pertinent answer to why she is no longer winning at the right end of tournaments could lie in her psyche. At times it has been evident that Martina has lacked the old desire and ruthlessness, coupled with the sheer girlish joyousness that was such an attractive part of her game.

Martina's mischievous smile at besting an opponent, the somehow cheerful self-admonishment at missing a shot and the annoyed racquet bouncing when it happened more than once, have all disappeared. That can probably be traced to the now-infamous French Open final against Steffi Graf in 1999.

Roland Garros is a title Hingis covets above all others in her favourite city. As a junior, she won in Paris as a 12-year-old in 1993 and it seemed like destiny had finally arrived in the 1999 event on the surface to which she is most suited.

Martina Hingis Not many people tell the truth about that match, when Hingis was three points from the title at a set and 5-4 up, and how the hardened professional Graf refused to acknowledge a bad call Hingis received in the third game of the set, prompting Martina to walk around the other side of the net to circle the mark. It incensed the rabid Parisian fans, who were thereafter remorseless on the 18-year-old.

Since then, Hingis has never quite played with the same lack of inhibition, as if still holding a subconscious fear that the crowd will turn against her. Where others might prefer to block that out, Hingis has always been a performer, is motivated by an audience, and thrives on the interaction. A lack of support hurts her more than most.

Hingis' consistency is still unmatched. She is a big-match player who has collected an array of smaller titles along the way. Since the 1996 US Open, Hingis has reached the semifinals or better in 18 of the 21 grand slams, a remarkable achievement. Invariably, she eventually confronts one power player too many and exits with respect - but not victory.

But in 2001 - along with the Grand Slam drought constantly referred to by television commentators, with her last being the '99 Australian Open to complete the hat-trick 11 slams ago - there has been a distinct lack of Tier I victories, too.

There have also been disconcerting losses to less powerful players outside the top five, respectable competitors in their own right but still the types of rivals Hingis would always defeat. In 2001, Hingis has lost to Kim Clijsters, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Amelie Mauresmo (twice) and Elena Dementieva, bringing into question whether her desire for the game remains strong. Her last title was a Tier II event in Dubai in February.

Hingis is not the type of personality likely to remain on the circuit into her late twenties. At 21, she is an experienced veteran, a 5-time grand slam champion with a maturity and intelligence that makes it seem probable she will find interests outside of tennis. It would be a shame if the time to leave were soon - certainly there is no indication of it - as there is much still to be achieved if she possesses the motivation to succeed.

If anyone is going to work out how to overcome the power players, it's Martina Hingis. Her mother is too wise a strategist not to have devised a plan to do so. It's a question of whether Martina can trust herself enough to implement it. This year has been forgettable, but it's been such a remarkable career that the potential for a renaissance cannot be discounted.

Mail Sports Editor