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How Martina Hingis Resurrected Her Career And Remained A Champion

Playing together for the first time, Martina Hings and Sania Mirza won five matches without dropping a set en route to the Indian Wells title last week. Julian Finney/Getty Images

When Martina Hingis began yet another comeback on the WTA Tour, she wasn't just returning to play tennis again -- she was returning to win again.

"That's my nature," she said during the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells earlier this month. "When I first started, it was like, 'OK, am I ready enough, am I good enough?' That's what actually got me back.

"I wouldn't do it if I didn't feel like I still had game."

It's more than a feeling. The 34-year-old from Switzerland teamed up with Sania Mirza for the first time at Indian Wells last week and won the title. This after winning the mixed doubles title with Leander Paes at the Australian Open and the women's doubles title in Brisbane playing with Sabine Lisicki.

Hingis now stands at No. 5 in the WTA Tour's doubles rankings. With the top team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci deciding to go their separate ways, it seems likely that Mirza, who is ranked third, and Hingis could be the best team in the world in short order. Hingis and Mirza are the No. 1 seeds this week at the Miami Open, a tournament Hingis won last year alongside Lisicki.

All this is an unlikely career twist for Hingis, who spent 209 weeks as the No. 1 singles player in the world and won five solo Grand Slam titles, the last coming 16 years ago at the at the 1999 Australian Open. But Hingis is committed to her doubles career, and even if today's matches don't come with the same attention and tension as her big singles performances, they're not taken lightly.

"No, this is still part of my career," Hingis said. "People pay attention. I consider myself fortunate to be in this position, still being able to play tennis competitively."

The former teenage prodigy first walked away from the game in 2002 and returned a couple of years later before retiring again in 2007, having won a few tournaments in her comeback but falling well short of the success she enjoyed the first time around. Then came some horse riding, marriage, divorce, a bit of coaching. She decided in 2013 to make a return to doubles, where she also had once excelled, reaching No. 1 and winning nine Grand Slam doubles titles in the first iteration of her career. While her skillful game could be squashed by the increasing power and physicality of the women's game in singles, the movement, creativity and net play of doubles suits her well.

"It's a treat to play with Martina," Paes said following their win at the Australian Open. "Martina is such a smart tennis player and she knows exactly what movements I'm going to do; I know what movements she's going to do."

Mirza agrees, saying Hingis is enjoying success again because of her abilities and competitiveness, not her reputation.

"She had a couple of retirements and stuff but she has an amazing understanding of the game," said the 28-year-old Mirza, who reached a career-high ranking of 27th in singles in 2007. "She reads the game really well on court and I'm able to learn some stuff from her as well.

"Nothing comes easy, no matter if you've been a champion or not. You still have to fight for each point. ... Names don't win you matches."

Indeed, Hingis has had to work her way back up, spending almost two seasons trying to get back in the business of winning big titles. The idea of coming back began when she was coaching young talent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova as part of her work with the Mouratoglou Academy, a place since made famous by Serena Williams. Playing a practice match with Pavlyuchenkova against top doubles players Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, the player-coach combo won -- "This is actually pretty cool. I still got it," Hingis told herself -- which prompted her to agree to one of the occasional requests from friend and fellow player Daniela Hantuchova to join her in a doubles draw. Of course, the tour Hingis returned to was not quite the same as the one she had left, not least in the way players communicate. "Do you guys talk? Everyone is on the phone all the time," she asked the younger players in the locker room.

As for on the court, Hingis and Hantuchova had only limited success. Hingis had taken up coaching the big-serving Lisicki when the German asked her coach to play doubles so she could get some more matches. "So I wasn't really prepared for that, but we actually played quite well. I started feel more comfortable on the court," Hingis said.

The two fell in the first round in their first tournament last year at Indian Wells, but then won the title at the Miami Open. The thrill of lifting a trophy led Hingis to drop coaching and make a full commitment to doubles. Teaming with Flavia Pennetta, Hingis reached the final of the US Open last year.

Then, in March, Hingis and Mirza -- who has focused solely on doubles since 2012 -- announced that they would be teaming up. Days later, they were hoisting that trophy at Indian Wells. Hingis had previously teamed with primarily singles players, and the advantages to playing with a doubles specialist were immediately apparent.

"Now we can practice against who we play," Hingis said. "And we practice doubles."

Hingis, who in 1996 became the youngest player to win a Wimbledon title when she teamed with Helena Sukova, also sees her experience as an advantage.

"I see the court quite well," said Hingis, adding that many of her opponents don't know how to adjust to the doubles court. "They're like two singles girls playing doubles together. They don't know how to move together."

Hingis also is enjoying the perks of being back on the circuit; her more relaxed, doubles-only schedule allows her to soak up the atmosphere and amenities of the tour in a way she couldn't when she was at the top of the game.

"It's a great life," she said, gesturing at the bright desert landscape surrounding the Indian Wells tournament. "It's beautiful to be here, it's sunny. A lot of people would like to change the lifestyle with us. We're in the sun playing tennis like the whole year.

"People, they come here on vacation, and we get to do our job here."

But she is enjoying winning even more than the weather, satisfying her competitive instincts and champion's desire on the court in a way she couldn't in retirement.

"As long as it goes well, and I'm happy and healthy playing, I'd rather win the championships in doubles than playing one or two matches in the singles," she said. "Because physically, I couldn't cope with it any more. So that's why I'd rather practice as much as I can and be competitive in the doubles."

As for what keeps her coming back, Hingis says tennis is where she belongs.

"Well, this is kind of my family too," she said. "Like, this is coming back to a place where I feel comfortable, confident, respected. That's all you can ask for."

That, and a few additions to her already large trophy case. She's now getting those as well.