Hingis toys with Raymond, then media

PARIS -- Jessye Norman doesn't sing arias at the State Fair of Texas, Pavarotti doesn't play Peoria, and Martina Hingis doesn't do a three-fourths-empty Court Centrale at Roland Garros on chilly Tuesday mornings in late May.

It's just not a big enough stage for the enigmatic Swiss.

Still, after a routine first-round win over American Lisa Raymond, Hingis was quick to question why, after just a few minutes, the questions suddenly dried up at her press conference.

"That's it? Everyone seems to be very afraid today," Hingis said. "I know it's the first or second day, but…"

Whether she was imploring the assembled media horde to ask her something that might interest her, or enjoying a little amusement at the Fourth Estate's expense, wasn't immediately clear.

With Hingis you really never know. The toothy smile is ever-present since her January comeback from a three-year layoff; she doesn't seem to have lost a thing off her strokes and her mystique lives on.

But at this early stage of the French Open, her opponents run the risk of boring her and her gamesmanship is confined to press conferences.

So, Martina, how close is your game to being where it was at its height?

"Well, I don't think I was totally tested today," she said. "It's hard to say something after 6-2, 6-2 against Lisa Raymond. I'm sure once I work myself into the tournament, you can tell more."

Asked how she felt entering the arena where she experienced a famous meltdown in the second set of her 1999 finals loss to a not-quite-over-the-hill Steffi Graf, Hingis replied, "I got asked the question [perhaps on French TV], so you probably saw it. That's the feelings you have, you go on court."

More of the smile -- the sort that makes her come across as knowing the punch line to an inside joke she'd just love to tell you but won't -- and after an awkward pause, the next question:

"You were quoted over the weekend as saying the French crowd is slow to forgive and slow to forget. … Are you expecting good support from them here?"

"I don't think I ever said that, that they were slow to forgive. I really don't know who put those words in my mouth."

Er, you did, Martina, in The Sunday Times of London over the weekend.

"Well, I don't recognize those words [two days later] because today I definitely don't feel like that. Coming here after five years, it's definitely a different story. I'm not a teenager anymore. I feel more mature as a player and as a person."

Physically, she's more mature, returning to the tour she debuted on as a 14-year-old as, she often reminds, a 25-year-old woman who makes all her own decisions and keeps her own counsel. But she also treads a fine line with an international media contingent that can enhance her image and marketability.

We're talking about people skills here, and whether hers have improved or not remains an open question. She's alternately charming, chastising or coquettish, depending on her mood, the weather and whatever unseen vagaries drive her actions.

There also are questions about whether her old-style game can still be effective enough to see her regain her place at the summit of a power-driven women's game, but Raymond sounded bullish about her chances.

"The thing that always stuck out about Martina was her mind," Raymond said. "I think she sees the court better than anyone's that's ever played.

"She maybe doesn't have that edge she had when she dominated, but it's remarkable what she's done, to go away for a couple of years and then come back and win a Tier-I event [Rome].

"A lot of the power hitters are easing out of the game. Lindsay's not playing as much and the Williams sisters aren't as big a force as they used to be. It's going to take someone to play a very solid three sets [to beat her]."

As for the young guns on tour looking to bump off a former (and perhaps, future) great, Raymond's not as enthusiastic about their chances.

"Henin and Amélie [Mauresmo] have the game to beat her, but as far as the young ones go, I think she's just too smart for them."

It's ironic that Hingis' most potent on-court weapon, her intelligence, can morph at times into her weakest link off it. You don't need the Dale Carnegie skills between the lines during a Grand Slam, but they sometimes come in handy in the locker room and over the airwaves.

Whether her on-court wisdom can translate into lasting contentment and bonhomie off it remains to be seen. One thing's certain: Martina will be Martina, and maybe one day she'll even share that punch line she's been keeping to herself all these years.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.