Hingis appears to be testing waters

In her heyday, the evocative Martina Hingis rarely minced words off court, or strategies on court. She was as bold as champions came.

That aggressiveness resulted in five Grand Slam titles before the age of 20 and put her fourth on the all-time list of weeks at No. 1. It also resulted in some legendary off-court fights with the intimidating Williams sisters and Amelie Mauresmo.

Now supposedly retired, Hingis is being sly about whether her entrance in this week's Volvo Women's Open in Pattaya is a definitive signal as a comeback attempt or merely a way to raise money for charity.

Perhaps that's because since she retired in the fall of 2002 due to ankle and foot injuries, Hingis has earned her living as a corporate spokeswoman and TV commentator and doesn't want to cut off any bridges. Or perhaps it's because she simply doesn't know herself whether her body and mind can hold up to the rigors of the tour again.

One source in her camp says her appearance at the tournament is a sure stepping stone for an attempted comeback. Another friend says that if she doesn't play well, the tournament could be a one-off. But one thing appears for sure: If she does take the tournament by storm, it won't be Hingis last appearance at a WTA tournament in 2005.

"If you think that she doesn't think she can beat Maria Sharapova, you're kidding yourself," an industry source who is close to Hingis told ESPN.com. "She's looked at the tour during the last year and sees that the players who were giving her the most trouble when she retired -- the Williams sisters, Davenport and Capriati -- are close to retirement or not playing as well as they used to.

"She's not afraid of the Russians and knows that Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters are injured. She's a lot physically stronger than she used to be. She thinks she can return as an improved player."

Even though she's only 24, a peak age for most players, that will be a very tall task for even someone as accomplished as Hingis. She's a mere 5-foot-7, 130 pounds and while her lack of height didn't affect her much during her first six years on tour, it sure did from 2000-2002.

By the time she had retired, she hadn't won a Grand Slam event in nearly three years and had been eclipsed by bigger, heavier hitters like Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and the Williamses. Monica Seles, whom Hingis once owned, bullied Hingis at the U.S. Open only two months before Hingis quit.

Unlike her glory year of 1997 when she won three out the four Grand Slams, Hingis could no longer trick her foes with her ever-changing strategies or simply out-run opponents. She could be hit through, foes learned to take advantage of her weaker forehand and lay waste to her powder-puff second serve. Plus, the girl who was already playing tournaments at age 4 and was whisked from her native Slovak Republic to Switzerland by her tennis mom and coach Melanie Molitor at 8 was a little burnt out.

A month after her last match, Hingis said one of the reasons she retired was because of the mental stress of knowing she couldn't dig out balls and nail winners down the line as she once did.

"It's combined," she said. "If you can't do it physically, you're not up for it mentally. I was hesitating. In practice, I'm fine, but once on court you know you have to chase certain balls down and if you can't, it's frustrating."

Hingis has said time and time again that she retired because of injuries. She underwent surgery on her ankle in 2003. But a number of other elite players believe that she at least partly called it quits because she could no longer dominate her sport. Early last year, Hingis admitted it would be tough to come back, even at full health.

"The longer I'm away from the courts, the harder it will be to get back among the top players," she said. "Tennis is constantly changing. But it's quite hard nowadays when I'm at the championships at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon. At times like those I wish I could get back on court and play at the level I was at, and feel that special atmosphere again."

From her days as an elementary school student in Switzerland when she used to beat the old men at her club in cards, Hingis has always liked challenges. She's ultra-competitive and has a very good idea as to what it will take to get back to the top again. ESPN ran into Hingis right after Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva had posted victories to reach the 2004 French Open final and quizzed her as to whether she could still be competing for Slam titles, given that she and the brainy yet slight Myskina play a lot alike. "Sure," Hingis said. "But I'm not playing and haven't been able to practice enough to stay out there long enough. But I always had confidence in my game when I was healthy."

So the question is, just how healthy is she? One of Hingis' friends says she's been practicing a lot and is hitting the ball a ton. Hingis herself went as far to tell the Swiss press while her calves are a little sore from practicing, it's not abnormal pain, which is a good sign for her surgically repaired ankles.

She has certainly picked a good tournament to test herself in, although a title won't come easy. World No. 11 Vera Zvonareva is in the Tier IV Pattaya field, as are up and coming sluggers Marion Bartoli of France and Samantha Stosur of Australia. Hingis will know rather quickly whether she's still suffering from a power outage.

"I believe she stopped playing because she felt she was no longer physically able to compete," Mauresmo said. "If she has not done a lot of work in this area, she won't be able to live with the best players."

Hingis friends say that if she doesn't feel like she can compete for major titles, she won't hang round for long. The prideful Swiss doesn't have the disposition of former Grand Slam champs Conchita Martinez or Mary Pierce, who are still flailing at windmills in hopes or regaining their once stellar forms. The youngest player to be crowned No. 1 at age 16, Hingis has said as much herself.

"I don't think that would be good enough for me [to being just reaching quarter or semifinals] because I know I'm better than that," Hingis once said. "The players are getting better. When you are used to being at the top, that's tough."