In 2002, shortly before Martina Hingis retired at age 22 with chronic ankle pain, television commentator Mary Carillo explained why the Swiss Miss was so entertaining in her prime. "Not too many people do whimsy anymore," Carillo said. "It was a pleasure to watch her find winners that no one else would even think of, to manipulate the court and her opponent so well."
Of course, whimsy is now pretty much extinct in women's tennis, one reason why Hingis's decision to return to the WTA Tour in January is so curious. Even before her injuries, the former world No.1 was being manhandled by the likes of Jennifer Capriati, Amelie Mauresmo ("half a man," as Hingis once called her) and the Williams sisters: bigger, stronger, fitter players who measure the artfulness of their games on the radar gun. "I have to work on my strength," says Hingis, who spent part of her retirement show-jumping in equestrian competitions. (Lately she's been practicing at her mother's tennis academy in Zurich.) "I can't allow myself to have any weaknesses."
Nature isn't her only obstacle as she attempts to muscle up. (At 5'7", the 25-year-old is dwarfed by most elite players.) Hingis was never a workaholic champion consumed by tennis. She seemed to enjoy being a tennis star more than being a tennis player. Nights on the town and photo shoots often intruded on her practice schedule, and before she retired she admitted to a creeping sense of ennui because she had nothing left to prove.
The notion that she's now a gym rat determined to update her game would shock most observers. Even if Hingis has matured, she could use a repeat of the chaos that gripped the top ranks of the game in 2005. Nearly every top player was injured, opening up opportunities for others to win titles. Three of the four Grand Slam winners were outside the top five in the year-end rankings.
Hingis showed last week that she's unchanged in some ways--she's as quotable and arrogant as ever. Asked if there were players she looks forward to facing, she didn't hesitate: "Yes, Maria Sharapova." Hingis reminded everyone that the last time they played--in practice when she was 17 and Sharapova was 12--Hingis won. "I want to see what she's got," Hingis said. Everyone's just as curious about her.