Passion to play brings Hingis out of retirement

I don't usually make this type of prediction on-air with this kind of certainty. In the first two years following Martina Hingis' retirement, ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale and I had a back-and-forth running bet about whether she would ever return.

I was so sure she was going to come back and he was so sure she wouldn't. One of the reasons I never asked Hingis about a possible return was because I knew it was going to happen. It was just a question of when. Players who are that great, that great, and walk away at such a young age can't move on to the next phase of life until they come back and play their hand out.

That time is now.

After sitting out the last three seasons, Hingis' comeback starts this week at the Mondial Australian Women's Hardcourts. Before we look at Hingis' return, there needs to be a recap of just how sensational Hingis was.

I remember playing tournaments in Zurich, Switzerland, in the late 1980s and early '90s when Hingis was still a child (she was born Sept. 30, 1980). Each time I showed up, even though she was years from playing professionally, you would hear all the hype about Hingis, stories about this child prodigy.

You had a feeling it was going to pan out, that Hingis was going to be as good as advertised. And she was, winning majors at 16 years old and five majors before her 20th birthday.

She was one of the most creative and crafty players to watch because of her variety of shots. But that kind of success brings an exorbitant amount of pressure to a champion, which can lead to physical breakdowns and emotional and mental strain on the court. And her crafty, counter-punching style ran its course.

Once Hingis reached 20, her reign was over. You can only speculate about the seriousness of a player's injury and whether Hingis' foot was real reason she's been out for three years. My feeling? It was not only a combination of physical injuries, but an awful lot of mental and emotional strain as well. When Hingis retired, she knew she could no longer rule the roost.

The tangible reason for walking away was injury. But the intangible reasons were very apparent: She was so unhappy on the court, losing time and time again to bigger, more powerful players; and playing the same frustrating patterns. In other words not gambling on the serve and just being overpowered.

Tracy Austin, Bjorn Borg

Martina's retirement is something we've seen before. Look at Bjorn Borg and Tracy Austin. Their retirements were similar because you just don't see that many players who have been ranked No. 1 walk away in their early to mid 20s.

Like Hingis, Austin was a young champion (two U.S. Open titles before the age of 20, ranked No. 1 in the world) who was forced off the court for physical reasons. Back injuries took their toll and Austin's career was all but over before her 21st birthday.

Once Borg knew he could not rule the roost -- in his case it was John McEnroe -- Borg walked away. Both Austin and Borg did not have very successful comebacks.

In Hingis' case, it was a combination of her foot injuries and multiple losses to power players like the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati.

Can Hingis make a successful return?

There are several reasons why Martina's comeback will be more successful than both Austin and Borg.

• The field is different now in women's tennis than when she ran into her problems. Serena and Venus are not on the rise and Davenport is no longer in her mid 20s. Hingis is more knowledgeable now as to how to deal with the type of game that would get to her in the past.

• No doubt Hingis will feel a lot less pressure. She's years away from being the No. 1 player in the world.

• Hingis should have the perspective now at 25 to realize she's accomplished just about everything there is in tennis, except for winning the French Open. She's sewed up a spot in the Hall of Fame, won five Grand Slam singles titles, was ranked No. 1 in the world for a total of 209 weeks, won player of the year honors … she did everything.

• The 2002 Australian Open finals. When I think back to all the painful losses, one that stands out is losing to Capriati in the finals of the Australian Open. Hingis had three championship points in the second set. Had she won, Hingis would have had her first major in three years and that could have kept her in the game. That was one of those matches that devastated her. It was crushing. I don't think she could ever have another loss that would be as devastating. It's a much different ball game for her now.

• Look at the list of injuries in women's tennis the last several years. Both Serena and Venus have battled injuries, same with Belgians Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters. Russian players dominated in 2004 but weren't nearly as much of a factor in 2005.

• The comebacks in 2005: Henin-Hardenne was out much of 2004 and came back and won the French Open; Clijsters, who fell out of top 100, won the U.S. Open and finished at No. 2; and Mary Pierce -- who had been a non-factor since winning the 2000 French Open -- came out of nowhere at 30 years old, reached the finals of two Grand Slam events, could have won the season-ending championships and now goes into 2006 as a contender. The way those three came back after missing a significant amount of time, Hingis has to feel very optimistic.

What will define a successful season?

Competing and playing the entire year and making this not just a fly-by-night comeback. Commitment to the comeback would be success No.1.

Her game, even though it doesn't possess the power to intimidate, has too many gifts not to be a force. If she competes the whole season she will be in the top 10 at the end of the year. That would be a success and I think she can be a lot better than that. She has an outside shot to win one of the majors, probably the French Open, ironically, the only one she hasn't won.

Before her early retirement, Hingis' most vulnerable shot was her serve. Will she have a different attitude and use the serve more effectively this time around? If she can start off 15-love on more service games, than her comeback will be that much easier.

One thing I felt was a big loss in her game was she didn't come to the net and use that part of her game with the same regularity and finesse that she did early in her career. Even though there is all that power now in the women's game, there still are plenty of opportunities to work your way to the net. When Hingis steps on the court, she'll have one of the top two or three net games in women's tennis. She's that solid around the net.

Hingis was unbeatable in Australia for three years, winning the singles and doubles titles from 1997-99. The Rebound Ace surface is just perfect for her, the speed is nice, it sets up perfectly and her opponents' power may be blunted just enough on the high-bouncing court. She has been comfortable down there since the day she set foot on it.

One of the reasons why she is coming back is her love for the game. When I saw her in Baltimore at my charity event in November, talking to her about the game and seeing her play, she loves to have a racket in her hand, it's so obvious. It's like she's an artist on the court and that is exciting to have back.

ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver won 21 singles and 112 doubles crowns, including 22 Grand Slam titles, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2002.