Returning to the tour is like having the fetters removed then voluntarily putting them back on.


Martina Hingis played her third match of the WTA championships in Madrid today against Amelie Mauresmo. Now would be a good time to look back at Hingis’ “year of the return.”

I believe Hingis entered this tournament ranked number seven but I can’t tell you for sure because, unlike most tournaments, the rankings change after each round. Which is why Amelie Mauresmo is now ranked number three after coming in at number one and, for some reason that I’ve been unable to uncover – please leave a comment if you know – has no chance at finishing number one despite the fact that she entered the tournament at number one and still has a chance to win the tournament. Go figure.

Anyway, Hingis stepped onto the court in January of this year and eleven months later she is somewhere in the vaunted top eight. That’s an exceptional achievement considering that she was retired for three years. Once you leave the tour you can sleep late whenever you feel like it and pursue any hobby you choose. After having a singular focus on tennis since childhood, Hingis had been free to think about the rest of the big wide world. Once you’ve tasted that, it’s very hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

Certainly we knew Hingis could play a high level of tennis but that’s the easy part. The hard part is working out every day and practicing every day and abstaining from a glass of wine every day and leaving your horses in the stable… Returning to the tour is like having the fetters removed then voluntarily putting them back on.

Hingis has been able to do that with one exception, and that exception cost her today. She was a step slow because she was tired. It’s way too much to ask that she return to the tour as a power player after having left it as the consummate finesse player, well, not unless she got hold of some steroids, but conditioning is completely under her control and that might be that one last bit of fetters she hasn’t been able to impose on herself.

That should say something to Serena and Venus Williams: once you lose that single-minded focus, you never get it back 100%. The exception might be Andre Agassi who took a mid-career break from tennis. But that was a shorter break, less than a year, and it marked Agassi’s psychological switch from playing for his father – and the U.S. tennis establishment which had designated him for greatness – to playing for himself. Hingis went through a similar transition during her retirement. She now plays for herself and not for her mother, her mother isn’t even here this week, but she’d already reached the top of her game when she retired the first time. Agassi hadn’t reached his peak when he took his break.

Mauresmo is one of the players here who recently recovered from an injury, a shoulder injury in her case. She only recently started practicing. She was completely out of rhythm in her first match against Nadia Petrova, she lost 6-2, 6-2, and it took her a set to get going today. After losing the first set 3-6, she easily won the second, 6-1. Hingis was out of gas.

To be fair, this would be Hingis’ third straight three set match and the first two had been late at night. And she did perk up when Mauresmo went through her usual bout of nerves. Mauresmo was serving at 5-2 when she failed to cash in on four match points. You can almost see her mind working. O.k., one more game and I win this match, o.k., one more point and I get match point, o.k., I win this point and I win the match.

She jumps from the present to the future hoping it will all be over as soon as possible. The result? Four match points gone, she loses her serve and now her opponent, that impish Miss Hingis, has a smile on her face.

Luckily, Mauresmo was able to run Hingis around the court enough to take away her second wind and a fifth match point finally did the trick, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.

I think Mauresmo will have a lot more trouble with her next opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne. There were two black lines snaking up the back of Henin-Hardenne’s leg as she played Nadia Petrova. I thought maybe she was starting in on a Maori full-body tattoo, I was looking forward to seeing what the tattoo might look like when it got to her face but no, it’s black tape designed to keep her calf muscles warm and protect the knee she injured during the Fed Cup Finals.

Yesterday I said Petrova needs more experience before she can win this tournament. That includes life experience. She’s been transitioning from adolescence to adulthood even though she’s twenty-four years old. In the tennis world, growing up can happen later than in other worlds because promising athletes accumulate a posse early in life and many times that posse includes a parent. That is not the case for Petrova but she did say that her father has been an imposing figure in directing her sports life.

Growing up in tennis, then, means shedding your parent-imposed posse and choosing your own. Petrova fired her long time coach Glen Schaap late last year because he was too controlling. “I was told how to behave, what I should be, but the person he was trying to create was somebody else. It was not suiting who am I in reality, ” she said.

As she figures out who she is in reality, if she doesn’t already know, she’s going through bouts of inconsistency. She would like to be the calm winner. After her first match, an easy win over Mauresmo, she said: “I served well and was patient and absolutely calm, and I felt like I was in control of the match.” But that would not describe today’s match with Henin-Hardenne. Petrova was far from calm and Henin-Hardenne won the match handily, 6-4, 6-4,

One of the pluses of being injured is that you have time off. Except for a small tournament last week, Kim Clijsters hadn’t played a tournament since before the U.S. Open when she re-injured her previously injured wrist by falling on it. It seems to have revived her. Her opponent today, Svetlana Kuznetsova, didn’t have a chance. Not only did Kuznetsova throw in some double faults and serve a paltry 49% for the match, but everything she hit, Clijsters returned and then some. At one point in the second set, Clijsters did a full split to one side of the court then ran all the way back to the other side to hit a running forehand past Kuznetsova at the net.

It took only 45 minutes – that has to be close to a record – for Clijsters to win the match, 6-1, 6-1.

It was a surprising result, Kuznetsova is not that bad, but she’s also not in Cljsters or Henin-Hardenne’s class yet. Lucky for Kuznetsova that Clijsters has promised to retire at the end of next year and Henin-Hardenne has started to mention life after tennis.

Oh, did I forget to mention the Boss-clad male model ball boys? I was happy to see that some of the whistles for the ball boys came from male spectators. Still, I’m not exactly sure whether it was approval or disapproval. As for me, I’m a bit jealous of male models. I’d love to be able to wear a double breasted, pinstripe Yves St. Laurent suit or an L’Homme suit with thin lapels and skinny legs. Unfortunately I don’t have the body. My hips are too big – though they’re not that big, just too big for thin legged pants,

If you must, you can watch video of the ball boys here. What the hell, if someone puts this stuff on youtube and Eurosport doesn’t remove it, I’m directing you to it.

See also: 2006 WTA Championships: Last One Standing

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