MELBOURNE, Australia -- Even during her three years away from the game, Martina Hingis always felt she could play. I don't think there was ever a doubt.
When I saw her play World Team Tennis last summer, and as I was around her at Wimbledon while she worked for ESPN, there was never a time when she lost that inner confidence in her game.
It wasn't that she felt she couldn't hit the ball or actually play the game.
What Martina Hingis proved at the Australian Open is that she can still handle the pressure and that she still enjoys competing. When you are away from the game and don't hit balls, don't practice six hours a day and don't play tournaments, you wonder whether that drive is still there. She still has it.
Practice is so different from the big stage and playing for money. What she did by ripping through that draw -- while also having some pressure situations -- showed that if she gets a step faster and a little fitter, she's going to be OK.
In her quarterfinal loss to Kim Clijsters, she basically lost on fitness. Clijsters was able to get her nose out in front in the third set long enough just to hang on.
It's that extra gear you need when you are in a titanic battle to distance yourself from your opponent. Hingis didn't have that.
If she works on that, there's no doubt she'll be a factor -- and, obviously, she has to have a serve that can give her some type of advantage.
As you get deeper in the draw, you tend to face players who play with a little more pace. In the fourth round, Samantha Stosur showed that you could push her around a little bit. In the quarterfinals, Clijsters came out teeing off, and Hingis wasn't up to the challenge.
I watched Hingis practice before her matches, and her practice partner wasn't teeing off. He was just giving her batting practice. That's not reality. You need to have game-based drills where you simulate things you will see in a match.
To me, her practice partner let her down by not feeding her the type of pace she was going to see against Clijsters.
After losing the first set, dropping the first two games of the second set and being on the brink of destruction, Hingis made a charge and got some confidence. She got behind the ball and dictated where it was going. That's when you saw Clijsters take a huge dip and start missing a ton of backhands.
Then, in the third set, when Hingis needed that extra gear, it wasn't there. Her play was similar to the first two sets, and Clijsters just toughed it out.
Once Hingis gets that next gear, which will come with playing more tournaments, she will once again become a factor.
Former ATP Tour pro Luke Jensen is providing ESPN.com with analysis during the Australian Open. Jensen, a two-time All-American at USC, captured the 1993 French Open doubles crown with his brother Murphy.