Return of the Shot Maker

Every other sports fan might have been talking about the Steelers and the Seahawks making it to the Super Bowl this weekend, or Kobe’s history-making 81-point basketball game, but I’ve been tennis-obsessed lately.

As the second week of the Australian Open kicked off, tennis’ Swiss superstars provided two of the tournament’s most exciting matches. First, world No. 1 — maybe all-time No. 1 — Roger Federer got pushed into a five-setter against Tommy Haas and came out on top with Michael Jordan–like, gear-shifting mastery. Then, Martina Hingis returned to center stage — after three years away from the sport due to injury and the rise of ball-whompers like the Williams sisters — and instantly made the dynamic on the women’s side completely intriguing. As I was watching her Monday-night matchup with a young Aussie named Samantha Stosur, those old bitter feelings I had from Hingis’ heyday — when she just seemed like an irritating brat — fell away as she showed how an artful, precision-timed, every-angle game can go head-to-head with power hitting. There was even a dramatic moment right out of the action-movie playbook: One of Hingis’ last big matches before she faded away was losing the 2002 Australian Open final to Jennifer Capriati after she’d been up one set and had four match points on Capriati. Hingis lost that set, then lost the third and the championship. In her first Australian Open back after that defeat, she found herself in exactly the same situation, albeit in the Round of 16: one set up on Stosur, and having let four match points slip away in the second. But as in the movies, when the hero inevitably faces his personal demon in the third act, Hingis came back from 5-2 in a grueling second-set tiebreaker, and I leapt from the couch in excitement as she prevailed. By the time you read this, she may have been dusted by Kim Clijsters, or someone else, but the victory over Stosur had the feeling of a climactic battle, and an important step back into prominence for Hingis: There’s no denying that a sport that has been dominated by sluggers for a while now needs her brainy/beautiful shot making.

—Robert Abele

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