At Open, ex-No. 1 Hingis slowly regains her footing

She wins first Slam match since 8-month injury layoff

August 28, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Serena and Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport. They're the Murderers' Row of women's tennis. And what about Martina Hingis? What about the woman who held the No. 1 position on the women's tour for 209 weeks? What about her?

Yesterday, a little off center stage in the Louis Armstrong Stadium at the U.S. Open, Hingis played her first Grand Slam tennis match since losing the Australian Open final to Capriati in January.

She is slowly making her way back into the consciousness of the tennis world after having been sidelined for much of the past eight months with two ankle surgeries, the most recent in May.

During her recovery, she mostly enjoyed the company of her boyfriend, professional golfer Sergio Garcia. But one afternoon while watching him play golf, she was suddenly overwhelmed by the desire to hurry back to the game she loves.

She wanted to be competitive by the time the U.S. Open came around. After watching the Williams sisters slug it out for the Wimbledon crown, she knew she had to buckle down more.

"In just the short time I was away, I can see how the game has changed," she said after her first match here required more hard work than she expected to beat Marissa Irvin, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. "The girls are much more physical. At [a tournament in] Montreal, you had a gym, everybody was working out before, after the match. ... I was nervous before when I played. I think it is natural for women, just a natural instinct. Every time you go out there, you're afraid to lose.

"Most seasons, when I go out and feel that way at the start of the year, it's OK, because everyone else is starting the season, too. But now, it's like everybody has been playing well for the last three, four months and I've had just a month to get in shape."

Against Irvin, the 54th ranked player in the world, Hingis, who is seeded No. 9 after asking for a wild-card entry into the draw, might have expected an easier time. But Irvin walked on court, in front of a near capacity crowd of about 9,000, full of confidence.

Because of Hingis' layoff, Irvin thought her chance of winning was every bit as good as Hingis'.

"It was an unbelievable environment," Irvin said. "When you're a junior player like I was just a few years ago, you dream of playing in front of a huge crowd like that and playing a great champion like Martina Hingis and you dream about winning. That didn't happen, but I'm proud of the way I played.

"I don't think she won because she changed anything in the third set. I think it simply came down to a couple points in each set. Martina is a champion. She isn't going to forget how to win in a couple months. When she needed to, she came up with some amazing shots in the final two games of the match."

It was getting to the end of the match -- getting through the end of the match -- that most concerned Hingis.

At the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, Conn., last week, she lost unimpressively to Russian Anastasia Myskina. Yesterday, for a few moments it seemed she might do the same.

Hingis has always been a smart competitor, perhaps the most tactical of all the current women's players. Through much of the early part of this match, she demonstrated that, always seeming to be in position to make the perfect return.

But when she arrived at 4-1 in the second set, she changed rackets and immediately lost the game. That revived Irvin, who suddenly started swinging out. When Hingis attempted to serve out the match at 5-4, Irvin sent four stunning backhands cross court, deep to Hingis' backhand, for winners. That was the first of three straight games where Hingis didn't win a point, forcing the third set.

"Players like her, at 5-4, have nothing to lose anymore," said Hingis. "You know she was getting back. I gave her the confidence a little bit to come back in the match. And I wasn't feeling the greatest. I thought, `Uh oh, been there, done that.'

"It's not like I feel I'm not there [not ready to compete]," she said. "It's just like really [hard] to make the next step. I pretty much know where I'm at. It's just a matter of not giving up, just playing matches. This is like pure will, you know, getting through today's match, being still in the tournament."

If Hingis, who next plays Italy's Antonella Serra Zanetti, keeps moving on, she could meet No. 5 Monica Seles in the fourth round, No. 2 Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, No. 3 Jennifer Capriati in the semis and No. 1 Serena Williams in the finals.

Is she ready for that?

Hingis smiled.

"You know, I've got time," she said. "When I was 15, 16, I thought everything is going to happen tomorrow or the next day. Right now, I know nothing's going to run away from me. I have plenty of time to do a lot of things.

"My next match, I'm not playing somebody who is going to shoot me off the court. Hopefully, if I get through the next two, three rounds, it's going to help me to just get physically where I want to be and just see -- one match after another."

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