As a rule, tennis comebacks are not pretty. From Bjorn Borg to Tracy Austin to Boris Becker, legion are the onetime stars who whiffed trying to take a second serve at glory. Not so Martina Hingis, who rejoined the tennis caravan earlier this month after a three-year hiatus. As we might have expected from perhaps the most gifted strategist the sport has ever known, Hingis waited until precisely the right moment to return. Her chronically injured feet, which caused her to quit the sport at 22, had finally healed. After a good many punctures, her confidence was reinflated, and her passion had returned. Heavy hitters such as the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, who had beaten Hingis into submission, were in various states of decline. "If I was going to [come back]," Hingis said, "I obviously wanted do it in a way that would be as successful as possible."
The early returns have exceeded everyone's expectations--if not necessarily her own. Through the first week of the 2006 Australian Open, Hingis, 25, was the toast of the tournament. Playing in oppressive heat, she waxed four opponents without dropping a set. By the time she moved into the quarterfinals with a 6--1, 7--6 dissection of Australia's Samantha Stosur, Hingis was doing a convincing impersonation of her former self, the three-time champ in Melbourne (1997 to '99) who ruled tennis for much of the late '90s. "So many memories were coming back," she said.
Hingis's style was instantly familiar to the crowds who packed the stands for her matches. Her game is still predicated not on power but on wit and nuance, qualities that have fallen out of vogue in the women's game. As ever, Hingis played tricky angles, deftly changed pace during rallies and displayed a sixth sense for effective tactics. After Hingis tapped one particularly cold-blooded drop shot, her first-round opponent, Russia's Vera Zvonareva, glowered across the net as if to say, Now, why did you have to do that to me? "The girl finds a way to win and finds a way to get her opponent uncomfortable," said top seed Davenport. "She still has a way to negate power."
For all of her old hallmarks, there were also indications that Hingis had changed. Her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, once omnipresent, was back in Switzerland critiquing her daughter by phone. While Hingis was thoughtful and candid, she seemed to have kicked her habit of making impolitic remarks. The fits of pique that once made her a polarizing figure were not in evidence.
January 30, 2006
By last weekend Martinamania was so widespread that the Australian Open's onsite bookmakers had made Hingis their second choice to win the tournament, behind Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne. This exuberance was irrational, given that Hingis's second serve remains a flutterball and that she had yet to face an authentic power player. Still, it was more validation of her decision to return. "Winning always feels good," Hingis said on Saturday, looking and sounding every bit like a player who had recovered her joie de tennis.
• L. Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag is at SI.com/more.