Hingis: There's always a chance

WIMBLEDON, England -- There are still days when Martina Hingis opens her eyes in her newly remodeled Zurich estate and wonders.

Why not?

She gazes out the window, sees the swaying trees, the freshly planted garden and the stable that houses her horses -- Montana, Sorrenta and Velvet -- and, almost unconsciously, the thought occurs to her:

I'm feeling good today, good enough to play tennis again.

But Hingis cannot play the tenacious, ruthlessly angled game that, for parts of five years, made her the No. 1 player in the world. The pain in her feet and ankles will not allow it. At 23, an age when most people are still trying to find themselves, her career is over.

Of course, that means she's trying to find herself, too.

"It took a couple, three months to realize it's kind of over," Hingis told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "It was difficult to accept. It's still in the back of my mind: maybe at 24, 25 there's always a chance to get back.

"I have one career over, but I am lucky. Doors open up for me and I can check in and do whatever makes me happy."

Anything with the exception of playing tennis, the grinding, professional version that wore down her lithe body and, eventually, broke it. There was never a formal press conference or a gold watch tribute. Her last match came in October 2002. Hingis lost a second-round match in Filderstadt, Germany, to Elena Dementieva and canceled the rest of her schedule. She had come back too quickly from heel-spur surgery in May. In February 2003, she told the French newspaper L'Equipe that she was taking an indefinite break from the game.

Hingis spent a few days at last year's French Open working for adidas and a few more at Wimbledon, but she felt completely disconnected from the game. This year, she has returned. She worked for Channel 7 at the Australian Open, Eurosport at the French Open and, after a whirlwind negotiation, ESPN at Wimbledon. Officially, she is an analyst, but, really, she's being paid to be Martina Hingis.

She sits, in a sleek black suit and pale pink blouse, in the cafeteria at the Wimbledon broadcast center. Hingis is cordial, even animated -- but that might be the espresso talking. Critics say she doesn't have command of the English language, but remember it's the third one in her catalogue, after her native Czechoslovakian and German.

"I'm a rookie here," Hingis said, waving her hands. "I take whatever I can from the announcers. I'm not afraid of criticism."

Although she has spent thousands of hours in front of the microphone and in the public eye, the sense of urgency of television has, to this point, eluded her. Where she was once the center of attention and could prattle on in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way in the interview room, her observations now must be tightened and forced into the cracks surrounding highlights and action.

"Sometimes," she explained, "I have a hard time being on the point. But, I really like it. It makes me feel closer to the game. I was in the commentary booth on the court yesterday and, oh, the smell of the grass. It was so green.

"It makes me want to play a lot more."

Hingis smiles as she says this, but there is a subtle sense of wistfulness in her voice. Because of her peculiar gone-before-her-time situation, she is in a odd little time warp. When people approach her in hotels, restaurants or shops -- and it happens all the time -- they wish her well in the next match. Sometimes, Hingis doesn't have the heart to tell them she's not playing anymore.

The point was driven home on Monday when Hingis was the analyst for Martina Navratilova's first-round match. It was not lost on Hingis that the 47-year-old icon for whom she was named when she was born in Kosice, Slovakia, was still playing while she watched from the sideline.

"It's surreal," Hingis said. "It's so weird, but you can't change history."

Hingis started playing tennis at the age of 2 and was entering tournaments when she was 4. Her mother, Melanie Molitor, was her coach. They moved to Switzerland when Martina was 8 and by 1995, at the age of 14, she was making an impression on the professional game. She occupied a fortuitous place in tennis history, in between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles and the Williams sisters.

Hingis won five Grand Slams in a nine-event span between 1997 and 1999, but after winning the 1999 Australian Open, she never won another, despite reaching five finals. This was not a coincidence, since the Williams sisters began to emerge at that point. For several years, it seemed, Hingis was the only one willing (and able) to take them on. The contrast of her precise shots and ability to retrieve with the big strokes of the Williams sisters made for terrific theater.

"There are no great rivalries anymore," Hingis said, closing her blue eyes, remembering. "They weren't afraid of me, and I wasn't afraid of them. Today, a lot of people, they lose the match in the locker room."

Actually, the previous sentence is Hingis' second pass. Her first, a breathtaking display of scatological prowess combined with American idiom, is a little raw for a family audience. And they say her command is lacking.

Make no mistake, Hingis can still hit the ball. She looked pretty good practicing with U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe for an ESPN segment. She does clinics, she says, but makes the kids do all the running. She has a gym in her home and spends a lot of time on the cross-trainer.

"I like to get a sweat out of myself," she said. "But 45 minutes on the court and I feel like I'm dead meat already. If I don't have to run, I don't."

Hingis said she's still "waiting for a medical miracle," but you get the idea that even if her physical injuries were cured, she might not have the inner desire to come all the way back.

"I wish I could play just the big tournaments, that would be great," Hingis said. "But I always needed to play a lot of tournaments. The longer you're away from the game, the longer it takes time to come back, maybe three to six months. That's tough."

Later, she runs into the reporter in a hallway and tries to refine her final answer.

"I wouldn't come back if I couldn't be the best, couldn't be top five or challenge for Grand Slams," she said. "Practicing four, five hours a day and being in pain, I was not happy. This is better, I think."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.