There were a few moments during tonight's first-round match at the U.S. Open that Martina Hingis teetered backward -- toward the bad stuff, the missed shots and the errors that had cost her so dearly at Wimbledon earlier this summer. But unlike in that disastrous opening-round loss to qualifier Jelena Dokic in England, Hingis tonight was able to regain her balance, take a deep breath and close out her match against Kveta Hrdlickova, 6-1, 7-5.
The victory topped a blustery, chilly first day of play at the USTA National Tennis Center that had much calmer conditions on the court than in the air. No. 2 seed Andre Agassi, No. 3 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, among the men, and No. 3 women's seed Venus Williams and No. 8 Jana Novotna all advanced, as did Rockville native Paul Goldstein, who defeated Scott Draper, 6-3, 6-1, 6-0. In fact, the only seed to fall was No. 6 Amanda Coetzer, who lost, 6-1, 7-5, to Irina Spirlea, although Dokic almost pulled out another opening-round spoiler before falling to No. 10 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 7-5, 6-1.
The result was something of a disappointment to the 16-year-old Australian, who had been leading, 4-1, in the first set. But as Hingis pointed out a few hours later, losing can sometimes end up being a valuable experience in itself.
"My point of view on how to deal with everything has changed since Wimbledon," Hingis said, looking much more relaxed than she had earlier in the summer. "I've learned a lot and I've been playing better again.
"I think you can learn more from disappointment or if you lose something; you definitely learn a lot more than just winning."
Hingis has been working on becoming more introspective, trying to put the Wimbledon loss, as well as a petulant performance a few weeks earlier in a French Open final loss to Steffi Graf, behind her. She said she is trying to remain positive when she stumbles instead of "looking for excuses," and she is once again getting the support of her mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, with whom she had split just before Wimbledon.
"I wanted to try being on my own, but it didn't work out," Hingis said. "It just happens in any family, but almost the whole world was watching what I was doing, every single step. . . . It didn't work out, but it was great that she wanted to be with me again, and I'm happy about that."
Dokic is hoping similarly to rebound in the next Grand Slam tournament, although her struggles have been more practical than emotional. She has found it hard to build any momentum this summer because of the age eligibility rules the WTA Tour adopted last year, preventing her from playing too many matches.
"You're competing with players that can play 30 tournaments a year, nearly three times as many as I can," she said. "I've got to come to a tournament and do well because if I don't, I don't have another week to maybe fix it up."
A response to the too-much-too-soon experience that hurt players such as Jennifer Capriati in the early '90s, the eligibility rules forbid players to compete on the tour before they turn 14 and limits the number of tournaments they can play until they are 18. A 16-year-old such as Dokic can play 10 WTA Tour/International Tennis Federation events a year, three exhibition or non-tour events a year and season-ending tour championships.
Dokic is not as critical of the rules as Russian counterpart Anna Kournikova was before she recently turned 18, but she said she feels they have contributed to her fitful play this summer. In fact, she said she believes the only reason she was able to play so well at Wimbledon was that she was a qualifier, allowing her to play three pre-tournament matches.
"After Wimbledon, not playing many matches and then coming into a Grand Slam, it makes a difference here," said Dokic, who played in one Federation Cup tie and one WTA Tour tournament between the two slams. "You don't have the feel of playing matches again, getting it going again, whereas when I had a first-round at Wimbledon, I had played a tournament before and I had like six, seven matches including qualifying. You've got your rhythm going, and you play every day."
Dokic looked to be in a good enough rhythm at the start of today's match, jumping out to a quick lead by pinning Sanchez-Vicario to the back of the court and then suddenly coming in for drop shots. But when Sanchez-Vicario won her service game and then broke Dokic to get back into the match, Dokic froze, as if she were watching the match slip from her in slow motion.
She never recovered, finishing with 45 unforced errors. "I had a game plan going into it, which I stuck by until 4-1," Dokic said. "But from there, just after she broke me, I played two games against the wind that were crucial. Then after that I just started making errors and gave a lot away."