Hingis happy to be healthy enough to compete

WIMBLEDON, England -- The teenager who won here 10 years ago walked into the interview room with a tender hip, an engagement ring sparkling from her left hand and a mixture of post-victory pleasure and relief.

Martina Hingis hadn't played in more than a month, but she feels so strongly about this annual trip to London that she showed up even though her doctor estimated she was no better than 70 percent match fit.

Once on the grounds, she was resolved to avoid the first-round trapdoor that swallowed her up in three of her previous eight appearances here. Hingis had to save two match points against 18-year-old, 232nd-ranked British wild card Naomi Cavaday to pull off a 6-7 (1), 7-5, 6-0 win Monday.

"I have to build on that, knowing that I can't have fear going out there, which you have as you get older," said Hingis, who is seeded ninth.

"I don't see myself right now after today's match as a contender. … But I'm happy to be able to run and walk and play tennis again. I wasn't able to do that five weeks ago. You know, sometimes simple things make you really happy. That's what happened to me today. Sometimes you realize, you know, that not everything is about winning Grand Slam titles, what it does to you at the end of the day. But I wish I definitely wasn't injured."

Hingis, 26, who is engaged to Czech pro Radek Stepanek (who lost on Monday to Paul-Henri Mathieu), is hoping to start a comeback within a comeback here. She logged an amazingly trouble-free journey back to the top 10 last year, her first season on the WTA circuit since 2002, and began this campaign strongly, reaching a final at the Gold Coast Australian Open tuneup and winning in Tokyo.

Then lower back and hip soreness forced Hingis to skip Rome, where she won impressively last year, and the French Open. She said the condition was diagnosed as an inflammation of the femur, and she is stretching for several hours a day to prevent the surrounding muscles from tightening up.

In the zoom-out picture, the Swiss star hasn't gotten past the quarterfinals of a Slam since she resumed her career. Her last major title was more than eight years ago, over Amelie Mauresmo in Australia.

Will Hingis see the mountaintop again? ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said the odds are long but she can't rule it out.

"I learned from Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters that with people who have won them before, it's really hard to say 'never,'" Shriver said. "Hingis is the kind of player who, once she gets a match or two, can get back into match gear pretty quickly. We'll see how she [recovers] from this one.

"I think her best chance would be here, though maybe not this year. Her serve stays low on grass and she's one of the best two or three volleyers in the game. And she improvises well, which is very important on grass.

"The play around her has improved, and she lost a little bit of her confidence and strut and aura. And she was someone who needed that aura."

Hingis looked bereft of her usual toolbox when she walked onto Court 2 to face the sturdily-built, befreckled Cavaday, who is Great Britain's fourth-ranked player.

The lefty has a powerful serve and deep, solid ground strokes, a style she's honing with regular training stints at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Bradenton, Fla. England's Lawn Tennis Association, which named Cavaday 2006 Junior Player of the Year, is helping to sponsor her.

"She's a street fighter," Bollettieri said after the match. Cavaday seemed it as she broke Hingis in the first game of the match and sped to a 3-0 lead within seven minutes. Hingis fought back with a couple of breaks of her own, but crumbled while managing just one point in the tiebreak. She whirled in disbelief when her forehand on set point was called wide, then looked disgusted with herself.

Hingis continued to play unevenly in the second set and found herself down to match point at 4-5 on her own serve. Cavaday swatted one return into the net and Hingis staved off a second match point with a forehand winner before stroking a drop shot to win that game.

"I was just like, 'No, this is not going to happen to me, not here again at Wimbledon,'" she said. "Somehow I never felt like, 'OK, she's on top of me.' I was always hanging in there. It was never like on my mind that I'm going to lose. I was right there with her."

Cavaday, who beat a top-100 player for the first time earlier this month, clearly tired in the third set.

"I found it tough mentally, because she does come back at you and back at you and back at you," Cavaday said. "It's relentless. I don't do that day in, day out. She's done it day in, day out for years and years. That's why she's a champion."

Cavaday said Hingis was a "big idol" for her growing up. "I actually was expecting it to be quite tough," she said of the psychological gap. "I expected every so often to look up and see her and think, 'Whoa, what am I doing?' But I didn't. I started playing well. I took a lead and rolled with it. You know, nearly took it. But that's the way it goes."

So Cavaday echoed the home country's sporting lament in a couple of ways, by making a gallant attempt and falling short. She's already had a good dose of British tennis pessimism in her short pro career.

"It really is a tough sport," she said last year on the BBC Sport Web site. "I've been talking about it with the other British women and everybody's got it about the same. But I also agree with the stick we get because at the end of the day, if you look at it on paper, we haven't got the results or the rankings."

As for Hingis' song, right now it resembles the chorus of a Joni Mitchell hit: Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

"I was totally pleased with myself at 17," Hingis said. "You think the whole world belongs to you."

Now she's content to conquer it one patch of grass at a time.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com.