I used to despise Martina Hingis. While she was busy reaching 12 Grand Slam finals between 1997 and 2002 (and winning five of them), I was cultivating a dark hatred for her entire being. Her joyless, little-Miss-Perfect smile. Her waxy, bulbous forehead (which has inspired some on the tour to nickname her "Chucky"). Her offensive comments (she once called Amelie Mauresmo "half-man").
Above all, I hated this chick's game. Hingis reminded me of those human backboards I used to face off against on my sixth-grade tennis team. No power. No gusto. Lots of cautious chips and bloops. I was thrilled when she began to get whupped by big hitters like Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters. When Hingis dropped off the tour entirely in 2003—ostensibly because of foot injuries, but really (I felt quite certain) because she knew she couldn't compete with the cruise-missile ground strokes of this new generation—I said goodbye and good riddance, Chucky.
It is thus with great surprise that I now make the following two predictions: 1) Martina Hingis will win this French Open, and 2) I will be rooting for her all the way.
Hingis seems far more human now. Most world-class athletes are bland, blinkered automatons—captivating inside the arena, painfully dull outside it. But the Hingis redemption tale lends her a little soul. She was beaten down and broken; she fled from the battlefield, licking her wounds and seeking inner peace; and now she's back—humbler, wiser, rededicated. Doing it for herself and nobody else this time around.
Any frustrated, midcareer professional can find some solace and hope in that story. (OK, Hingis is still only 25 years old—not exactly a grizzled veteran. But female tennis stars age like canines.) Tennis regularly offers up this optimistic lesson. We've seen Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, and now Hingis make successful comebacks after fading out of sight for a couple of years because of loss of focus or emotional stress. I cling to the thought that, facing my own failure, I might some day cocoon myself as these tennis stars did and re-emerge as a stronger, more centered person.
As for Hingis, not only do I admire her never-say-die spirit, I've also come—to my own great shock—to adore her style of play. It turns out I got bored with all those power hitters on the women's tour. What fun is there in watching cannon forehands, flat and low and hard, one after another? Half the players seem to come from a mysterious genetics lab somewhere in Russia, which pumps out 9-foot-tall blondes who do nothing but grunt, crush the ball cleanly down the line, and occasionally attempt an ill-advised drop shot. Meanwhile, Hingis' arsenal includes some gorgeous, looping topspins; bedeviling slices; pinpoint placement; and sudden changes of pace. As with her countryman Roger Federer (though she lacks his floating, ghostlike movement around the court), it's Hingis' tremendous variety that makes her such a treat to watch. (To paraphrase Orson Welles' take on the Swiss in The Third Man: Five hundred years of democracy and peace produced not only the cuckoo clock, but also some enchantingly graceful tennis.)
Of course, generally when you see a woman player with great touch, a crafty bag of tricks, and not much oomph on her shots, she's getting blown out in the first round by one of those Russians. The fact that Hingis can hang with the big girls (she's already beaten Davenport, Venus Williams, and Maria Sharapova this year) is partly a testament to her abilities. It's also a commentary on the shallowness of the women's talent pool right now. After returning this January from a three-year layoff, Hingis has already crept back into the top 15. And she seems certain to keep climbing. Other than Mauresmo, none of the real power players have been at the peak of their games lately. The lack of top-echelon players on the women's tour these days no doubt played into Hingis' decision to come back.
And it's also why I'm picking her to win it all at the French. That clay surface at Roland Garros slows down the big boppers' thunderous ground strokes and serves, negating many of their strengths. What's more, Hingis is coming off her first tournament championship since her rebirth—and she got it on clay courts (at the Italian Open). Her second serve is still quite vulnerable (it always has been), but otherwise she's almost completely rounded into form. And she remains the most strategically brilliant player in the women's game.
I was even happy to see some of her patented crude arrogance return this week. When asked about her first-round match, Hingis replied, "Well, I don't think I was totally tested today. It's hard to say something after 6-2, 6-2 against Lisa Raymond."
Daaaaaaaamn! Why you gotta hate on Lisa Raymond like that? I'll tell you why: because Chucky's back.