Monday, December 19, 2005

2006 Intriguing Question #10

January is beckoning. Can you hear its clarion call above the din of December? The Dorothy Tour will begin in New Zealand and Australia in less than two weeks. Yes, the new sesaon is almost here. But WTA Backspin already is, with the opening edition of the "2006 WTA Intriguing Questions" series. First up, the initial part of a two-part discussion on the latest wave of comeback attempts set to break onto the beaches of the WTA shore.


Previously on "As the WTA World Turns"...

...Martina, former child ruler of all she surveyed until her power was usurped by a band of superior female warriors, flirted with an attempt to reclaim her former glory as a more worldly-wise adult, only to suffer an early defeat and turn her back on the struggle for power once more. But had she really given up her aspirations to recapture her throne? Or was she just biding her time, building up her defenses and fortifying her strength for the mother of all battles against not only the powerful ruling class that once overthrew her, but also the legion of scions their power and fame lured into the fray?...

A little over the top? Probably. Well, yeah... but not really. Not when you consider what's already happened on the WTA tour over the past year.

Just for a second, consider the improbability of the string of comeback stories that dominated the tour in 2005: a 29-year old veteran who nearly retired in mid-2004 wrapped up her second straight year as season-ending #1, a Belgian who'd been overwhelmed by a "mystery illness" rose above the throng of contenders to win another slam title, only to be trumped three months later by another Belgian whose career nearly ended because of a wrist injury that dropped her ranking outside the Top 100 as late as early March but still went on to claim her long-overdue first slam crown in September, completing a multi-slam '05 combo that had been earlier matched by a pair of sisters who manuevered through injuries and indifference to take the other half of the season's four biggest titles. Then, in an almost laughing-at-fate moment that put the finishing touches on the season, they were all outshined in the season's closing weeks by a 30-year old who'd overcome years of injuries and familial turmoil to emerge as a steady, heady contender playing the best tennis of her career. Crazy stuff.

Seriously, sometimes it seems like the WTA tour is just a switched-at-birth or multiple personality disorder (no, Damir Dokic does not count) storyline away from being eligible for a Writer's Guild nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Thing is, no one could think up some of the plotlines that polka-dot the tour like a slinky silk party dress on a Supernova without being being called a fraud of the highest order. They're just not realistic at first glance... but they're all true nonetheless. Who says reality TV isn't plausible? (And I'm not even talking about "Venus & Serena: For Real.")

And now here comes Martina Hingis.

Success never had a difficult time finding Hingis. It came naturally to her (maybe too naturally). She was the toast of the town right out of the box, from her dominant junior days (in which she ruled the roost over #2 girl Anna Kournikova) to her early seasons as a pro when she rose to #1 before her 17th birthday and stayed there for 209 of the next 247 weeks, nearly completing a single season Grand Slam in 1997 (only losing the Roland Garros final to Iva Majoli) as she won four out of five slams and reached at least the SF of 104 of 118 tour events. Everything seemed so right for "the smiling assassin," who cleverly toyed and precociously taunted her opponents with inventive shots and mind games on the court, while seeming to all the world to be the maturing poster child (and GQ covergirl, a first for a female athlete) for all that was right about tennis prodigies off it. Then she started to lose, and all hell broke loose.

When things stopped being easy for Hingis, the gleam in her eye vanished. She became frustrated and her mantle of intelligent invincability crumbed in full view of everyone. Never physically overpowering anyway, and dependent on the mental aspects of her game, the Swiss Miss was at a loss for how to handle the Big Babe style of tennis that became en vogue in the late '90s and early 2000's. Outmatched shot-for-shot against the other rising top players, she started to lose to them. And rather than use her mind and a better training regimen to maintain her position, she instead de-evolved and starting acting like the spoiled brat everyone had convinced themselves that she wasn't.

She famously had an embarrassing temper tantrum against Steffi Graf in the Roland Garros final in 1999, crossing the net to argue a call and later running from the court in tears after losing a lead and seeing the German great win what would be her final slam title, only returning after being coaxed to do so by her coach/mother Melanie Molitor. A few weeks later, her headline-grabbing 1st Round loss to Jelena Dokic at Wimbledon was but another early warning sign. Less than two years after nearly pulling off a Grand Slam, Hingis never won another slam title after that aura-liquifying spring in Europe.

Over the next few seasons, still unable to find a way to handle the power of her more imposing counterparts, Hingis nonetheless maintained her top ranking by playing more often and racking up points/wins against many of the players who weren't in position to knock her off her ranking pedestal. But by possibly overplaying she experienced chronic ankle injuries that ultimately led to surgery, a rushed return, and then retirement at the age of 22. Her health likely did play some part in her decision, but it was difficult at the time to lay not a small portion of the blame at the feet of her lack of will to continue to strive to be "second-best," at best, after so many years of competing with few or no equals within earshot.

A curious thing happened during Hingis' absence, though. Justine Henin-Hardenne came along and did precisely what Hingis didn't. Inheriting the role of the tour's "most clever" player, the small-in-stature JHH found ways to chop down, outlast and out-gut her physically-imposing counterparts and climbed over them all to the #1 ranking. Sure, the Belgian was helped along by a weapon that Hingis never had, namely one big overpowering shot (JHH's backhand) that could be called upon to get the goat of a Big Babe with a big winner of her own from just about anywhere on the court... but the new Queen showed it was possible.

That, and the aging and/or unfocused nature of many of the power players who shoved her aside, had to catch Hingis' eye. The seeds had been sown for a comeback attempt. Still only 24, she dipped a cautious toe into the WTA pool last February, returning at a small event in Pattaya, only to lose to "The Blue Angel" herself, Marlene Weingartner, a player Hingis would routinely crush in her heyday, by a 1-6/6-2/6-2 score. Another taste of defeat didn't sit well and her comeback was stopped cold. But, looking for another outlet for her tennis ambitions, the World Team Tennis tour proved to be Hingis' safe haven.

Playing one-set matches during the late summer, Hingis was a star again. Beaming under the glow of the lights and practically bathing in the appreciative applause of her fans, she went 8-1 in singles and 17-0 in doubles, leading her N.Y. Sportimes club to the league title, gaining playoff MVP honors and rediscovering the once lost gleam in her eye. "Hey, this is pretty easy. Maybe I can do this" thoughts must have sparked between all the Swiss Miss brain synapses. Then, right on cue, days after the 2005 season ended, Hingis announced that she was returning to the WTA tour on a full-time basis.

But will an older Martina be able to physically hold her own against many of the very same people she failed to overcome when she was still in her grinning diva prime, as well as the new contingent of grunting (and forehand-blasting) teenaged foes with the same burning desire to succeed Hingis had when she was their age? The reports are good that she's made at least a few necessary tweaks to her game, but the truth won't be known until Hingis takes the court in real live match situations.

The WTT stoked her competitive fire brightly enough to cause her to make this attempt, but will it be doused again if she isn't immediately successful? Remember, she sounded the words of a defeated ex-champion who realized she wasn't up to a Second Act after just one match less than a year ago. She had a hard time not being the best before. How will she handle it now when she's even farther away from that position?

In her favor, there are so many injuries these days she might avoid meeting more than one true power player if she advances to a SF or better, and most of those players don't measure up to even a quarter of Hingis' brazen on-court guile... if it's still there, that is. Remember, Monica Seles was on course to maybe become the best ice-in-her-veins champion the sport had ever seen, then she went to Germany in 1993 and everything changed. Even after she healed physically, Seles' nerves were shot. In a "crisis," will the Hingis of 1997 re-emerge, or the one from 1999? That Hingis never learned to lose, or to learn from losing. And the losses will come. Has she evolved enough as a player to be able to accept her limitations, and find another way around an obstacle?

Hingis will never reach her former heights, but the tour is still better just having her around. Over time, most have not only forgotten why they weren't exactly tearing up over Hingis' announced exit after the '02 season, but also the drug-like effect the teenaged Swiss Miss had on the tennis world when she first pounced onto centerstage in the pre-Williams era. Her devilish grin was infectious... at least until she turned into a little "devil incarnate" while trying to navigate the passage from teen-to-adult (so sue her -- she's not Steffi Graf). A tennis lifetime has passed in the few short years Hingis has been away. So much has happened (in 2002, it was "Maria who?"), and she'll have to have commensurably matured to fight her way through the inherent disadvantages of essentially being away from the game for three years. It's difficult not to have doubts that she has the goods to do it.

The first major test for Hingis will likely come in Melbourne, where she reached the final six consecutive times from 1997-02, a run that continued even after her dominance had waned. She's comfortable there, and the games of many of the other top players usually haven't gelled so early in the season. Hmmm... could you imagine if she somehow pulled off a miracle and continued that streak next month? Hmmm... if she made the final, that'd mean she could...

Nah, that'll never happen. It's just not realistic. Hmmm... where have I heard that refrain before?

1.Hingis will find things slow going early on as she struggles with her fitness and the ability to play three full, tough sets.
2.Still, in Melbourne, she'll get her first slam singles match win since the '02 U.S. Open. In fact, she'll get a handful of them at her best slam event.
3.As the season moves along, Hingis will take advantage of injuries to top players to reach at least the QF of a slam (probably Roland Garros).
4.She'll add at least two moderately-tiered (III, and maybe a less-populated II) crowns to her career haul of 40 WTA singles titles, winning them on multiple surfaces.
5.Finally, Hingis will close the year in the Top 30 and start spinning tails to anyone who'll listen about how she'll return to the Top 10 in 2007.

All for now.


Keep coming back to WTA Backspin pretty much every day for the next two weeks for more "Intriguing Questions," predictions and previews in preparation for the kickoff of the 2006 season over New Year's weekend.

Next: So many comebacks, so little Backspin Blogtown time.


Blogger thesupernova said...

Woohoo!!! I'm so glad you're back. Your article has gotten me really excited for next year and what Hingis could bring to the tour. I would love to see her come back and be able to really compete. Can you imagine if she got to the final at Oz? I can. And it would be freakin awesome!!! Especially if it was Sharapova in the final with her. That's my dream Oz final right now.

Mon Dec 19, 03:27:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Fair warning... my predictions for Sharapova won't be very "grand" for 2006. But I have a legitimate reason, based on past historical facts, for it (and I've mentioned it in Backspin once in the past... though you'd probably have to have a photographic memory to recall it).

The better news is that the scenario might mean incredible things for her in 2007, though.:)

They say good things come to those who wait, right? Of course, Sharapova doesn't like to wait for things and might blow up the theory right out of the box in Melbourne next month.

Mon Dec 19, 07:43:00 PM EST  
Blogger thesupernova said...

Even though I loathe to admit, I don't think Sharapova will have 2006 that I will look back fondly on. That Oz final is definately a dream. But what would the world be without dreams?

Tue Dec 20, 02:59:00 PM EST  

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