Well, it soundedgood in theory, anyway. There she was, retired at 22 years old, with tens ofmillions of euros in the bank. She would ski at St. Moritz by day and go outwith the boys at night. She would ride horses at her estate in Switzerland andmaybe take up golf at her other residence, outside Tampa. She'd nourish hermind by auditing some courses. Apart from minor television appearances andsponsor obligations, she would wake up most mornings free to do whatever shepleased. ¬∂ But Martina Hingis quickly realized that life in repose isn't allit's cracked up to be. In fact, like so many retirees from Palm Beach to PalmSprings, she had to confront the reality that work is often less about what wedo than about who we are. And in its absence, our identities can get lost. Allthe more so for someone blessed--which is to say, cursed--with one-in-a-billionskills at her job. A few months after quitting tennis in 2003 (no severancepackage included), Hingis was bereft. "I wouldn't say that I wasunhappy," she asserts, "but it was hard to do things and know that Iwould never be the best. Not the best skier or the best show jumper or the bestcommentator. When you've been the best at something, it's a very addictingfeeling." ¬∂ Hingis was once, of course, the best at hitting a tennis ball.Well, not hitting but rather maneuvering it across a net with such precisionthat each ball seemed to have its own GPS. When she dusted off her rackets, themagic was still there. "I was afraid tennis might have left me, but it wasthere for me," she says. "People come and go, but this"--shemotions to a racket--"is not like other relationships. I realized therackets and the balls were always going to be there for me. I could leavetennis, but it wouldn't leave me. It's what I do. So I came back."
Unlike so manyother unretired athletes, Hingis didn't conceive of her comeback as a noveltyact; to her credit she reentered the labor force as a full-time worker. So itwas that on May 15 she was up early and slugging away on a practice court onthe outskirts of Rome, preparing to play in the Italian Open, her 11thtournament of 2006. She had already done some weight training that morning.Mindful of her diet, she ate a salad and a small portion of pasta for lunch.She sought a scouting report on her next opponent. "Would I rather be homewith the day to myself?" she asks, anticipating a reporter's question muchas she does an opponent's shot. "Some days, maybe. But overall, no. Noway."
Even beforeHingis won the event on Sunday, for her first title since 2002, her second acthad drawn rave reviews around the globe. She reached the quarterfinals inJanuary's Australian Open before falling to Kim Clijsters, the second-seededplayer, in three tight sets. But the real measure of her success is what hashappened since. Playing on four continents, she has held up physically andemotionally, as she has beaten a slew of top opponents--and also absorbed somedispiriting losses. Having started the year ranked No. 999, she's ascended toNo. 14, just below the ranking (10) she held when she left the sport, drivenout by a pair of bum feet and, just as important, a psyche shattered by astring of demoralizing defeats. When Martina Navratilova claims that Hingis'sreturn has been the biggest story so far this year on the Sony Ericsson WTATour, it's hard to argue.
The next stop onthe Hingis Comeback Tour is the French Open, which begins on Sunday at RolandGarros. Hingis is the anti-Bogart, or perhaps the anti-Bergman: She never hadParis. It's the only major that eluded Hingis when she ruled tennis's roost formost of the late '90s, and it was the site of her memorable meltdown againstSteffi Graf in the 1999 final. But if the men's field seems preordained toserve up yet another final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal--arguably themost compelling rivalry in sports right now--the women's draw is wide open. Onthe red clay, which neutralizes brawn and rewards brain, Hingis is on the shortlist of contenders. "Martina has a real chance because I don't thinkanyone's yet figured out how to play her," says former world No. 1 TracyAustin. "She has so much diversity, no one else is used to it."
As ever, Hingis'sgame is predicated on her advanced tennis cortex. In an era of mindlessball-bashing, her unerring tactics and sixth sense for tempo serve herparticularly well. "A lot of the girls are big and strong, but they don'tknow how to move," Hingis says. "You hit two different shots--a sliceand then topspin--or you come into the net, and they lose their timing."Plus, she remains one of the few players who can go four or five games withoutmissing a ball. "I don't think there's anyone on tour who hits the ball ascleanly as she does," says Clijsters. "Even in those three years shewas off, she never lost it. That's just the pure talent she has."
At the same time,Hingis has adapted to the game's evolution, amping up her strokes and making aconcerted effort to dictate play. Earlier this year in Tokyo she was blastedinto submission by Russia's Elena Dementieva. They met again on May 11 inBerlin, and this time Hingis stood inside the baseline and traded fire. She wonhandily. "It's not my personality to be aggressive, but I know that I needto attack," she says. "It's good not to be shot down. That'ssatisfying."
What's also beensatisfying is the reception she's received. In her prime--the 209 weeks she wasranked No. 1, from 1997 to 2001--Hingis cleaved public opinion with her oftenblunt comments. What was refreshing candor to some was brash impertinence toothers. (It didn't help that, though Hingis speaks four languages, the meaningof her remarks was sometimes lost in translation.) Regardless, she is nowbeloved, siphoning the fans' affections from younger and higher-rankedcolleagues. In February in Dubai, Hingis couldn't suppress a grin when, in amatch against Maria Sharapova, the WTA's current It Girl, the crowd chanted,"Mar-tee-na!" That horrible day in Paris seven years ago, when Hingiswas No. 1 and the whole stadium was pulling for Graf? "I understand itnow," she says, smiling.
Beyond thesentimental story line, she has done her part to cultivate goodwill. Removedfrom that sensory-deprivation chamber known as the teenage years, Hingis, now25, thinks about what she says, catching herself, for instance, as shecharacterizes the wave of Russian players as "robotic" and changing herdescription to the more benign "mechanical." Asked about the irony thather former rivals, Venus and Serena Williams, are neglecting tennis at the sametime she has decided to wring every last drop from the sport, Hingis doesn'tbite. "Maybe I'm behaving better," she says proudly, "but a lot ofit is just realizing things as you grow older. I mean, at 17 you just go, notlooking right or left."
For now Hingis isstill enjoying the process of playing full time again. Last week in Rome sheperformed her microsurgery while wearing a smile that didn't desert her for thewhole tournament. She showed off her new power, routinely serving at more than100 mph. She sliced and diced and whimsically broke up rallies with shots thatsomersaulted the net with topspin. She hit drop shots with such delicacy thather racket might as well have been strung with yarn. The weather was gorgeous.The fans appreciated the show, applauding over the sounds of zipping Vespas onthe hill above the court. One early opponent was even afflicted by a sort oftennis Stockholm syndrome, remarking that if she was going to be tormented6--0, 6--1, she was glad it was at the hands of a "genius" likeHingis.
Late during onematch, as Hingis sat for a changeover, a ball boy began to unfurl an umbrellaover her to shade her from the sun--one of those quaint rituals that maketennis at once so endearing and so easy to mock. Hingis smiled and gently wavedhim off. She didn't need to be sheltered from the elements. She's an adult nowand in the throes of a second career. She can handle the heat just fine byherself, thanks.
For more tennis news from L. Jon Wertheim, includinghis weekly mailbag and a preview of the French Open, go to SI.com/tennis.
Hingis's stellar showing in Melbourne, the third event of her comeback,foreshadowed even greater success in Rome (opposite).
Hingis closed out Dinara Safina on Sunday to win her first title since February2002 and the 41st of her career.