| HINGIS: Guile and speed no longer sufficient to fend off power-hitters
London, Oct. 14 (Reuters): Clutching a bottle of champagne, Martina Hingis smoothed down her traffic-stopping red dress and smouldered for the cameras.
She flashed a smile as brilliant as the glittering Australian Open trophy by her side and stood atop the tennis world.
It was 1999 and the enigmatic Swiss had just won her third consecutive Australian crown.
Not only that, but aged 18 she had become the only player in history to win the same Grand Slam tournament in singles and doubles three straight years with three different partners.
That year she became the first woman to earn $3 million in prize money for three straight years.
The girl who was named after the great Martina Navratilova and first picked up a tennis racket aged two was flying high.
She was living the dream.
As she soaked up the Melbourne sun and the adulation of tennis fans worldwide she would have been forgiven for thinking it could get no better.
She would also have been right.
Since that defining moment more than three years ago Hingis has been in decline.
On Monday she dropped outside the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time in six years, down to number 11.
Computer logic finally caught up with conventional wisdom. Her guile and speed is no longer sufficient to fend off the ever-growing band of powerhitters and they have overtaken her in numbers.
Where once there were perhaps one or two players capable of overpowering her, now there are many, and the steely Swiss is not prepared to delude herself.
“I will not play any more tournaments this year. I need to free my mind,” she announced on Friday.
On the surface, the early end to her season can be attributed to physical ills and the premature return from ankle surgery in August.
Her results on the tour since her return have been less than impressive and the Swiss, who played her first professional tournament aged 14 and conquered the number one spot at 16, conceded she had come back too soon.
“This created a downward spiral... in a sport where spirit and self-confidence are very important,” she said.
“I decided I need some time to clear my head.”
Her head, perhaps, is in greater need of rest and rejuvenation, than her battle-weary body.
Since 1999, the sound of her tactical brain has been heard ticking louder and more persistently than ever as she plotted her route back to the pinnacle of the sport.
Only an exhaustive tournament schedule kept her at number one in the world as she mopped up second tier events at will. The major titles were going elsewhere.
Desperate to be no longer manhandled out of the way by larger, more intimidating foes — like a baseliner in Brobdingnag — the Swiss Hingis constantly refined her plans to beat brawn with brains.
“I won’t have to turn into a bodybuilder, covered in bulging muscles… I just have to get better at what I am already good at — and that is tactical awareness,” she insisted after going agonisingly close to winning the Australian Open at the start of this year.
“For me it is all about my timing, reading the game, playing the right shots at the right time.
“There is more finesse and elegance than power to my game. You know, over the last few years the other girls caught up with me and I just didn’t raise it.”
But timing and reading the game proved insufficient against the brutal power of her peers.
The Williams sisters, first Venus then Serena, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati all gained a psychological edge over her.
“There is no-one I need to be frightened of,” Hingis said earlier this year. But it is not a question of fear, rather one of belief.
Hingis’ belief must now be at breaking point.
Still just 22 she has amassed a fortune from tennis. The sport has been kind to her, but it has also taken its fee.
Her teenage years were spent under the media spotlight. Embarrassing on-court tantrums were broadcast live on television, spats with her mother and coach Melanie Molitor over boyfriends were the stuff of gossip columns.
Her faintly sheepish demeanour as she suffers early losses now has the detractors who objected to her teenage cockiness rubbing their hands with glee.
It would come as no surprise if Martina Hingis’ break from tennis became a permanent one and the Swiss walked away to enjoy life away from the co-urt.
Not a surprise but the end of an era when style and savvy counted for more than strength.