Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hingis Form Analysis: Comeback & Year next

Its been a mixed bag year for tennis in general. Except for Roger Federer’s dominant form mildly eclipsed only by Rafael Nadal at the French Open final and Justine Henin consistently reaching all 4 slam finals.

The big story of the year though was Martina Hingis’ ‘dream’ comeback at Goldcoast. With 2 titles (one of them a tier 1 mind you) to boot and offcourse the Australian Mixed doubles title, it has been what most would call a ‘successful’ comeback.

Her making it to the quarters at A.O. (beaten by Kim Clijsters) in her first slam since retiring with ankle & foot injuries in 2003 showed her tremendous class. But Hingis has always done well at the first slam of the year which also happens to be her favourite. The surface is much favoured with her too; she has a court in her native Switzerland where she practices before flying to Australia. Plus this is the one slam she has done consistently well at winning 3 singles and doubles crowns for 3 years running (1997 to 1999).

No surprises there. The big surprise though was her maiden mixed doubles title with India’s Mahesh Bhupathi (Her best mixed doubles result had been the semis of the U.S. Open). Bhupathi is a top doubles specialist. Teaming with him and her inherent aptitude for doubles play meant they were going to show some good performances. They got to the final and eventually won it 6-3 6-3 beating Elena Likhovtseva & Daniel Nestor, without a doubles rank and seeding for Martina! But Martina had previously amassed 36 career doubles titles, so it wasn’t like she was a newcomer. Infact it was the ease at which she came back atleast in the initial months which surprised both seasoned experts, critics, fans and her fellow playing mates.

In the Far East, at Japan’s Tokyo Open she reached the final beating Maria Sharapova (after her much publicized comment about ‘I want to see what she has got’ or something to that effect). There she was beaten by Elena Dementieva and finished runner up.

Over to Europe and she won her first tier 1 tournament, the Italian Open title. She beat Venus Williams on the way to the finals, but Venus was hardly the player of yore. At her best Venus could over power Hingis but Venus hasn’t been having a great time lately with injuries, indifferent form and offcourt distractions. Beating Safina in the finals was easier for Hingis to win her 41st title. She had to beat only 1 top ten player i.e. Venus.

Then she made it to the French Open Quarterfinals.

Promptly made it out of Wimbledon in the 3rd round losing to Ai Sugiyama. A match everyone expected to be tough but for her to win.

As is her customary dip in form mid-season, she fared fairly at the same level.

To the American hard courts then and she made not much of a splash.

At the U.S. Open she exited in round 2! Surprising many a people who hoped she would have made it atleast to the quarters. She has a phenomenal record at the U.S. Open but has all of one crown to show for it all. Her 2nd round exit in 2006 was her worst result ever at Flushing Meadows. True the rains played a part and might have disrupted her concentration with several rain & weather related delays.

By this time the knives were out again to slice and dice her performances. With critics weighing heavily on her lack of results, and suggesting that it could all be too late.

She landed in India next to play at the Sunfeast Open in Kolkatta where she paid a visit to the tomb of Mother Teresa, got her print of the inaugural ‘starwalk’ and won the tier 3 tourney. Obliging her Australian Open doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi she made a maiden appearance to play and visit the city. Bhupathi’s sports & event management company globosport had a great time but the event wasn’t well marketed even in India. Frankly the title was already in her bag the moment she decided to play. With a weak field, indifferent form of Sania Mirza, the result was never in doubt.

After her career title number 42 and 2nd title of the year it was back to Europe. She reached the quarters in her home tournament of Zurich falling to Kuznetsova. Another top ten player beat her.

Reaching the year-end championship played in Madrid where she didn’t fare too well beaten in 2 of her 3 group matches and failing to advance.

She ended up finishing the year ranked no. 7 on the WTA singles ranking list. Now who would have thought that she could manage that after coming back from a 3 year hiatus, from no ranking to the top ten!

What to look forward to in the new year for Hingis:

The biggest surprise of 2006 was still left for the fans & also for Hingis when her beau Radek Stepanek proposed to her!

So Hingis is now engaged and set to marry which could very well happen this year. What effect it will have on her game is being hotly debated on her fan sites. (From the wedding date to accidental pregnancy, the entire gamut!)

Hingis, romance and boyfriends have never been far. And all too often she has been distracted in her career --- read that as part 1 (according to her). The second innings has started on a winning note at the Gold Coast Mondial Australian women’s Hardcourt Open. She defeated Sybill Bammer.

Although Hingis has been strongest in Australia throughout her career, the real test will be when she moves out of her favourite domain. Deftly avoiding the vexing questions about focus, expectation and distraction owing to the engagement, Hingis said, “I don’t think I’m in a position to be saying that I’m going to win a Grand Slam so I wont do that”. Clearly she doesn’t want to raise hopes.

She either clearly knows how far she can go, or is being diplomatic to not serve warnings. Either ways she will only take each match/tournament as it comes. Not really surprising since she has said before she lives in “the now”.

She will very well be distracted if & when she and Radek play at the same tourney due to the constant media onslaught and fan’s attention. That will first happen this year at the first slam of the year, The Australian Open. As it has been with Kournikova-Philippoussis, Hewitt-Clijsters, Graf-Agassi, Evert-Llyod; there will be hungry reporters ever present. The first test & results of her mental focus will be seen soon enough. That could set the tone for the rest of the year.

As with other tennis pro relationships which have either made the player’s game bloom or doom, her cause of the return back to the game will either bare good fruit this year or leave her and us wondering ‘what if’.

The other contenders like Sharapova, Justine Henin, Mauresmo & the Russian brigade could get her number. Interesting she hasn’t been able to beat the top 3 consistently last year to win at the slams. Beating players ranked outside of the top 10 wasn’t a problem similar to her career part 1 where she could easily beat lower ranked players. It’s the top 10 players against whom she has string a series of victories to have any shot at the grand slams. She wasn’t able to do that before her retirement in 2003 and hasn’t given any indication till now that she can do it this time round. If she is hungry this year for the French Open again, she will need to beat a lot of them. Depending on her draw she could face atleast a couple of them. And dark horses ever loom. Last year Hingis herself was the darkhorse with not even she knowing how she would fare. But 2006 has given everyone a fair indication of what to look forward to. Hence several players may better prepare against her.

The French Open will again be a major focal point for her and hopefully only on the professional front. Since Paris is also the summer romance & love capital, her love for Radek could reach its peak, hopefully making her reach peak performance there and lift the only slam and only major title to elude her. Prediction for the year would be a semi-final to the French Open and from there on its upto her.

Wimbledon will be anything but a bed of roses. The tabloid and scandal hungry British press probes hard and fast. Add to that the impending date of her wedding (Radek has said he has an idea), and the media frenzy will be unbelievable.

Her grass court performances have been good except offcourse those 2 first round exits. She might make it to the quarters.

The U.S. Open will be the one where she might hold good if her body does. Hard courts will be hard on her especially in long 3 set matches. Last year didn’t give any clear indication since she got bumped out soon.

Meanwhile she could pick a couple of titles this year. Her confidence is getting better and better but I would refrain from stateing she will win several titles. This isn’t 97, 98 or 99 and it isn’t the same Hingis who could string a series of titles then.

Prediction: One slam this year hopefully the French & 3-4 titles.

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