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Chasing the past

Hingis, now 26, seeking return to form in New York

Posted: Friday August 31, 2007 2:06AM; Updated: Friday August 31, 2007 10:51AM
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Martina Hingis dispatched qualifier Pauline Parmentier 6-2, 7-5 on Thursday at the U.S. Open.
Martina Hingis dispatched qualifier Pauline Parmentier 6-2, 7-5 on Thursday at the U.S. Open.

NEW YORK -- You know this sensation. You shuffle through a drawer, come upon an old photo. Maybe it's from a decade ago, maybe longer, and you can't help but stop: Is that what I looked like then? You might remember what you were thinking when the shutter snapped. You might even know the way you were. But one good thing about being an obscure person, unwatched and unknown by millions, is that you know this moment will soon pass. You'll slip the photo back into the envelope, shove it to the back of the drawer. The slightly disturbing feeling that comes with staring at a younger version of yourself will fade. And your life will go on.

For Martina Hingis, it's different. She's surrounded by reminders of the way she used to be. Reporters and fans remind her daily of past mistakes, past wins; the other day someone called her a "has-been" to her face. Early Thursday afternoon, Hingis found herself on a treadmill in Flushing Meadow warming up for her second-round match at the 2007 U.S. Open. Directly above and in front of her, hanging from the ceiling, was a blown-up poster of 16-year-old Martina Hingis holding the silver '97 U.S. Open trophy: Short girlish bob, white Sergio Tacchini sweatsuit with blue trim, the grin of someone operating at the absolute peak of a rare and transcendent talent. She pumped her legs. The machine beneath her hummed, and she had no choice but to stare at the image of her younger, better self. "I look really young," Hingis said.

She is 26 now. After a three-year retirement, Hingis came back to tennis last year in astonishing form. She won two tournaments, rose to seventh in the world, raised the possibility that, with the fractured state of women's tennis, she might be able to sneak in a Grand Slam title or two before leaving the game for good. This year she choked away a quarterfinal win over Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open, won her lone title of the year in Tokyo, then spiraled into a cycle of injuries -- hip, back, femur -- that dropped her down to No. 17.

On Thursday, Hingis went on to beat qualifier Pauline Parmentier, 6-2, 7-5, with her usual mix of lobs, dropshots and chessboard tactics. If nothing else, Hingis' mind still operates at a level most of her opponents can't imagine.

"Everybody knows I can be a dangerous player," she said. "They have to watch out for me. Of course they know my weaknesses: They try to overpower them. Everybody tries to shoot me off the court. I try to to hold on against it.

"I know what I can do and what I can't," Hingis continued. "I'm very realistic. I know where my chances are, and I know if I prepare myself the best, like last year, that there's only a few players who can beat me. But being injured the last three, four months -- that wasn't easy. I'm just trying to get myself back together now. I know when I train right and everything is falling into place, I'm still a dangerous floater. Nobody likes to see me on the other side. I try to take that as a positive."

Still, Martina Hingis: "Dangerous Floater" was hardly the label anyone -- including Hingis -- would've predicted for her. At 12, she was the youngest to ever win a junior Slam title. At 13 she was the youngest Wimbledon junior champ. In 1995 she hit the women's tour and, at 14, became the youngest to win a singles match in the Open era.

"It's always been that I was the best junior, the best here and there, all at a young age, and I've broken so many records over the years," she said. "So when you have a hiccup, when you've been [ranked] 15-20 for one year, you're like, 'Hey, what's going on? I should be up there with the top 10, winning tournaments.' Because you don't know anything else."

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