INTERVIEW-Tennis-King believes Hingis is innocent

LONDON Wed Nov 21, 2007 2:45pm GMT

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LONDON Nov 21 (Reuters) - As a player who has been involved with tennis for almost half a century, Billie Jean King was lost for words when she tried to sum up the 2007 season.

After fidgeting with her glasses and staring at the ceiling of the Nursery Pavilion in Lord's cricket ground for what seemed like an eternity, she shrugged her shoulders and said: "It's so weird."

With plotlines straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, the genteel sport of tennis has been left reeling over the past three months with allegations of match-fixing, gambling, doping and even poisoning overshadowing the on-court action.

Topping King's list of most surprising revelations was Martina Hingis's announcement that she had failed a drugs test at Wimbledon.

An emotional Hingis stunned the sporting world earlier this month when she declared she had tested positive for cocaine in June. The Swiss, who promptly retired from tennis, insisted she had never taken any drugs.

"It just doesn't make sense... it's just not her," King told Reuters in an interview.

"She was going to retire anyway. I do believe Martina Hingis. If she says she hasn't taken it, I believe it.

"Maybe she went out to a party... and others had dope around and leave it on tables and if you get it on your hands and maybe you ingest it and you don't even know. There are so many possibilities now. It's just not in Hingis's character. I'd stand by her.

"Characters are revealing and I think it's great she came out first and took it head on. That's a pretty good sign too as a lot of players always wait (for an official announcement) and she thought to heck with it. That was smart."

But the 63-year-old King, who won 39 grand slam singles and doubles title during her illustrious career and is credited with changing the face of women's tennis, admitted the allegations have hurt the sport's image.

"None of this ever helps but I don't think it's fair (to focus)... on one or two incidents when you've got thousands of women and girls playing throughout the world," said King after receiving a Sony Ericsson Lifetime Achievement Award at the Sportswomen of the Year Awards.

INCREDIBLE HENIN

Tapping the table with her knuckles, she added: "Knock on wood after this year... I don't know of any other players ever to think about taking drugs. They are so healthy, especially the top ones. They are so into fitness. You can't perform (by taking drugs) especially one-on-one."

Even though tennis hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, King felt people should not forget the on-court achievements of players such as world number one Justine Henin, who won 10 titles including two grand slams in 2007 despite the break down of her marriage.

"I think the Justine Henin story for women's tennis this year is just (fantastic)," said King.

"She's the greatest athlete considering her size and everything. She's the best for her size ever to have lived. She's incredible.

"I admire her as it takes a lot of courage to say that 'I'm having family troubles and I'm going to figure it out and make it right again'.

"Most people want to have the tension and argue... and love that tension to go on for the rest of their lives so they can always blame somebody.

"She seems more centred and is getting better than ever," added King about a player who lost only four matches all year. (Editing by Alison Wildey)

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