- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

NEW YORK The smirk is back. The same Cheshire smile that Martina Hingis once flashed at hapless opponents like an ivory stiletto. The one that drew apt comparisons to, well, a gleefully psychopathic children's doll.
And as for the cutting game that once lurked behind it? That remains to be seen.
Hingis, the U.S. Open's top seed for five straight seasons, enters this year's tournament as a ninth-seeded wild card, coming off a career-threatening injury and anything but a lock to recapture her place at the forefront of women's tennis.
"I know my game for this tournament probably isn't where it's supposed to be," Hingis said after a 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Marissa Irvin yesterday in the first round of the U.S. Open. "You know, I still [have] a day to recover tomorrow."
She'll need it. At once more vulnerable and less self-assured than ever before, the 21-year-old is far removed from the brash teen-ager who cruised to five Grand Slam titles and a No.1 ranking all with a haughty grin so smug, so infuriating that she earned the nickname "Chucky," a reference to the homicidal, baby-faced doll in the unspeakably goofy horror film "Child's Play."
Hingis' troubles began in earnest following her demoralizing, come-from-ahead loss to Jennifer Capriati in the finals of this year's Australian Open. Severe foot, left knee and left hip pain left Hingis unable to train, and she pulled out of major tournaments in Rome and Berlin.
Matters dipped from bad to worse when Hingis' doctor, Heinz Buehlmann, said that the injuries could force the Swiss star to retire. In late May, Hingis underwent surgery to repair ligament damage in her left ankle, a condition possibly caused by believe it or not the tennis shoes Hingis wore and endorsed from the ages of 11 to 18.
(Three years ago, Hingis sued Italian sportswear maker and former sponsor Sergio Tacchini for $40million, claiming that defective shoes forced her to withdraw from several tournaments. Tacchini countered that Hingis was simply attempting to avoid paying damages for breaching her contract with the company).
Following her operation, Hingis sat out the French Open and Wimbledon, the first Slams she has missed in her eight-year career. The best case scenario? Six-to-eight weeks of rehab before returning to the tour.
The worst? No tennis. Ever again.
"Two surgeries in the last 10 months, it's not easy for [any]body," Hingis said. "Slowly but surely, hopefully I'll get it back."
To speed her recovery, Hingis went to work. She began with a low-impact exercise program of swimming, biking and in-line skating, progressed to practicing on a soft, rubbery court the better to cushion her ankle and in early August requested a wild-card entry to the Open.
Since returning to the tour at a Montreal tournament two weeks ago, Hingis' results have been mixed. In easy wins over Maggie Serna and French Open semifinalist Clarissa Fernandez, Hingis looked much like her old self, displaying the guile and shotmaking that propelled her to a top ranking.
Against first-rate competition, however, Hingis has faltered: She lost in straight sets to world No.4 Jelena Dokic a player Hingis thrashed at last year's Open and barely topped the wildly inconsistent Alexandra Stevenson.
Stamina also remains a question mark; Hingis dropped her first three-set match to 16th-ranked Anastasia Myskina in utterly gassed fashion, losing the last 11 games.
"Physically, I feel like I've had a few matches since I've been back which I wasn't able to close out," Hingis said. "Until a certain stage, I'm really competitive with the girls. That's not the problem. It's just [physical] at this point."
Against Irvin, Hingis nearly suffered the same fate. While her deft touch was evident on one sequence, she hit a soft backhand drop shot, followed by an improbable-but-perfectly-placed lob off a forehand volley she was often overpowered by an American opponent ranked No.53 in the world.
"Two weeks ago, I wasn't as good as I am today," Hingis said. "That's probably why I won the match. Right now, I'm still only going to be 22. It's not like my body is shattered for life. Hopefully not."
Yet even if Hingis manages a complete recovery, she faces an uphill slog. Out for more than two months, she's fallen to a No.8 ranking. And like Maryland's mascot, Testudo, the tour has taken on a new and decidedly unfriendly look in her absence.
The Sisters Superior aka the Williamses reign supreme, treating the rest of the WTA like a particularly tasty chew toy. Up-and-comers like Myskina and Daniela Hantuchova are itching to take Hingis' place. Stalwarts like Capriati and the slimmed-down Lindsay Davenport are still going strong.
Above all, Hingis once again may be betrayed by her body namely, her unremarkable 5-foot-7, 130-pound frame. While Hingis' court sense is unmatched, her less-than-imposing pop is fast becoming a creaky anachronism among the game's elite, not to mention an outright liability against Big Babe opponents.
In her last five matches against Venus Williams, Hingis is 1-4; against Serena, she's 2-3. Davenport has defeated Hingis in three of their last five meetings. Capriati dealt Hingis one of the most devastating losses of her career in the Aussie Open final, a match that saw Hingis squander four match points.
Even the 5-foot-11 Hantuchova has gotten into the act, knocking off Hingis in straight sets at a tournament in Indian Wells this spring.
"The girls, physically, [theyve] worked on themselves," Hingis said. "[In] Montreal you had a gym, and everybody was working out before, after [their matches]. It's a challenge. It's gotten so much more professional."
Still, Hingis maintains that she can once again vie for the sport's top spot, sooner rather than later. After hitting an ace on match point against Irvin, Hingis raised her arms in triumph and flashed a look of relief.
Followed by a familiar grin.
"The next opponent, it's not like somebody who's going to blow me off the court," she said. "Hopefully, if I get through the next two, three rounds, whatever, it's going to help me to just get physically where I want to be. One match after the other."

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