For the second time since her injury-induced 2003 retirement from tennis, five-time grand slam winner and former World No. 1 Martina Hingis returns to WTA competition this week at the Southern California Open as a doubles partner to good friend Daniela Hantuchova.
The newly-minted hall of famer’s return to tennis via doubles competition is an entertaining storyline for the women’s game and will play out four more times this summer, including at the U.S. Open in August.
That said, should Hingis extend the comeback to singles competition down the line, as many believe she will, her latest comeback is almost guaranteed to end as poorly as her last one did back in 2007.
In the mid-to-late 1990s Hingis was the unquestioned star of women’s tennis. She burst onto the stage in 1994 at the age of 14 and won all five of her slams before the age of 19. Yet in 2003, the Swiss star was forced to leave the sport far too early with significant foot and ankle injuries.
In 2006, Hingis returned to WTA singles competition and despite her extended absence from the sport achieved a respectable degree of success. She advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2006 Australian Open, won a pair of WTA events later that year and actually peaked at No. 6 in the world rankings.
Hingis won another event in 2007 and advanced to the quarters of the Australian Open for a second consecutive time. Then things turned ugly.
In late 2007, Hingis was determined to have failed a drug test at Wimbledon earlier in the year when trace amounts of cocaine were found in her system.
A two-year ban was announced but rather than fight the test and the suspension, Hingis opted to once again retire from the sport. Almost as fast as she came back, Hingis was gone again with little to show for the effort.
It was a significant and unnecessary black mark on an otherwise terrific career that landed Hingis in the International Tennis Hall of Fame earlier this month. With that induction as the backdrop, Hingis announced she was again returning to the sport.
Hingis has been competing in World Team Tennis this summer with the Washington Kastles and appears fit, healthy and in decent form for her return to action this week.
Without question, it’s a far more mature and stable Hingis that comes back to women's tennis and she’s choosing the correct path for her latest career revival. In fact, given her history, Hingis actually has an opportunity to find success alongside her partner and friend Hantuchova.
While undoubtedly known for her singles prowess, Hingis was quite the accomplished doubles player in her prime. Taking advantage of her exceptional tennis instincts and ability to play unbelievable angles from anywhere on the court, Hingis won nine slams and spent 35 weeks atop the doubles world rankings.
At 32 years old, it’s not a stretch to believe those attributes still live in Hingis and will serve her well this summer in the less-challenging doubles draw of the women’s circuit.
The same, however, can’t be said about her prospects in a return to singles competition, one that Hingis has neither affirmed or denied since announcing her comeback.
In fact, it’s entirely likely that expanding from doubles to singles competition would prove as big a mistake as Hingis’s last return to the sport, albeit for entirely different reasons.
Even as she was spending 209 consecutive weeks as the world’s top-ranked player, speed and power were never part of Hingis’s repertoire.
In fact, before her injuries sent her into that first retirement, Hingis was struggling with the likes of Serena and Venus Williams, who brought a new brand of talent to the sport.
That speed and power has manifested itself in women's tennis, and it’s Serena herself that continues to dominate it, along with plenty of company in the likes of Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki, to name just a few.
Champions don’t play just to play, so for Hingis to return to singles competition it would have to be with a goal of winning significant tournaments and perhaps a sixth slam. Given the talent and the depth of the women’s game, that’s a tall order.
It’s entirely possible Hingis would win some matches, maybe even best a top-ranked player if the majority of breaks went her way.
But given where she’d be seeded in a 2014 grand slam, Hingis would have to do that two or three times over just to match her Australian Open quarterfinal appearances from her previous comeback.
That's extremely unlikely, and therefore a return to singles competition would be a head-scratcher at best, a huge mistake at worst. Yet just as Hingis is prepping for her doubles return, she hasn't ruled that out as a possibility.
Still in her early 30s and given all she’s accomplished in the sport, it's understandable that Hingis would crave another shot.
It’s also fair to argue that only an athlete of Hingis’s stature should be the judge of when to hang it up or when it’s too late to come back after doing so…twice.
That doesn't, however, change the fact it’s not a good decision or a reasonable challenge to accept.
In Hingis’s case, returning to doubles competition with a talented partner is an intriguing endeavor with a decent amount of upside. Taking it further than that by challenging today’s elite stars, who have strengths she never really possessed, simply lacks positive potential by any true measure.
Significant missteps marred her last return to the sport. Let’s hope this time around Hingis has the advantage of lessons learned to avoid a similar mistake.