Martina Hingis of Switzerland shakes hands with her doubles partner Sabine… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
It wasn't clear Thursday at Indian Wells whether Martina Hingis was making a comeback or just having a little fun with some hit-and-giggle tennis.
Last year, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. That usually indicates that a playing career is over.
But there she was Thursday, drawing perhaps a half-full house in the BNP Paribas tournament's new 8,000-seat Stadium 2, playing doubles with her friend and occasional tennis student, Sabine Lisicki of Germany. They lost in a third-set super tiebreaker to a good team, seventh-seeded Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua of Australia.
But the winning or losing seemed less of a story than the future. Specifically, the future of Hingis, 33.
In the late 1990s, she was the face of women's tennis, especially 1997, when she won three of the four major tournaments, failing only at the French Open.
Her most definitive response to whether this was a one-off or there might be more to come was, "We'll see."
She and Lisicki, 24, are friends. Lisicki called Hingis "my idol" after the match. Hingis coached Lisicki, No. 15 in the world, at the Australian Open.
"I was excited when she asked me to play doubles," Hingis said.
Always a mistress of deflection in news conferences, Hingis smiled her light-up-the-room smile and reminded everybody that she had last won the singles title at Indian Wells in '98.
"That's a long time ago," she said. "I'm getting pretty old."
She neither looked it nor sounded 100% sincere.
Both Hingis and Lisicki, while giving credit to a very good opposing team, said they were mostly pleased with the result.
"It would have helped with a better draw," Hingis said.
The 6-4, 6-7 (0), 10-6 close call may have masked some of the improvements needed. Such as Hingis' serve, which she lost all six times, three of them at love. Or the sudden collapse of Lisicki's forehand in the late stages of the deciding third-set tiebreaker.
But the 7-0 tiebreaker to take the second set was impressive, and it featured three cat-quick volley winners that were a staple of Hingis' doubles game in her prime.
She did, after all, win five Grand Slam singles titles, nine Grand Slam women's doubles titles and one more major in mixed. She was, after all, ranked No. 1 in singles for 209 weeks and in doubles for 35 weeks and is among only a handful who have been ranked at the top in both at the same time.
Her singles game was artistry. But once the bigger, taller, harder-hitting players such as Mary Pierce, Lindsay Davenport and Serena and Venus Williams started showing up — an era that tennis broadcaster Mary Carillo once labeled "Big Babe Tennis" — Hingis was muscled to the sidelines.
She was asked about those days of creativity in tennis and she said, "Today, it is all more physical. There is no time to be creative. The ball is coming too fast."
In January 2008, Hingis was suspended from tennis after testing positive for cocaine in a tour drug test. The sanction was imposed by the International Tennis Federation. She appealed, then chose to retire. Five years later, she was in the Hall of Fame.
Six years later, she is back on the courts, smiling coyly about the future. And if the turnout and enthusiasm for her appearance Thursday was any indication, tennis people still hope she has one. The wild-card entry given her by the tournament turned out to be a smart move.
In other matches Thursday, two time Indian Wells winner Lleyton Hewitt (2002-'03) struggled past a fellow Australian, Matthew Ebden, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-3. In women's doubles, veterans Sam Stosur and Svetlana Kuznetsova knocked out the third-seeded pair of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.