Article (Aug. 18, 2002)
This It Girl Has Game
Despite Buzz, Hantuchova Stays Focused On Tennis
August 18, 2002
By ROBERTO GONZALEZ, Courant Staff Writer
NEW HAVEN - The marketing of Daniela Hantuchova has begun. She has been dubbed the next Anna Kournikova, but with game. Her fashion sense, good looks and style of play have captivated much of the tennis media, especially in England, where the British tabloids were fixated on her long legs during Wimbledon.
But by all accounts, Hantuchova has been able to brush away the adulation and focus on her game. She has remained modest, yet knows what the fuss is all about.
"I guess that's something that belongs to tennis, too," Hantuchova said at Wimbledon. "I'm just trying to be focused on my tennis, because for me that's the most important thing. But people like to talk about those other things, too."
She is a promoter's dream and yet, in a way, the anti-Kournikova. While Kournikova can be seen cavorting with pop star Enrique Iglesias in a music video, there are websites with pictures of Hantuchova playing with dolphins.
"She has a clean, sexy look," ESPN tennis commentator and former pro player Cliff Drysdale said. "She is definitely not caught up in herself like Anna, though Anna is a legitimate international superstar, so in a way, you can't blame her for that."
Hantuchova, 19, takes the comparisons to Kournikova in stride.
"She's a totally different person," Hantuchova has said.
Hantuchova also has something Kournikova does not: a tournament title. Hantuchova stunned former No.1 Martina Hingis 6-3, 6-4 in the final at Indian Wells, a Tier I event in California in March. She broke Hingis' service six times on her way to winning $332,000.
Saturday, Hantuchova met Amelie Mauresmo in the semifinals of the Rogers AT&T Cup in Montreal, losing 6-2, 7-6 (3).
Hantuchova is ranked No.12 in the world and is the seventh seed at the Pilot Pen, which begins main draw play today. She'll play a first-round match against a qualifier on Monday.
Pilot Pen tournament director Anne Worcester is happy to have Hantuchova in the field.
"She brings a special artistry to the game," Worcester said. "She is really creative on the court and interesting to watch. She does well under pressure."
While Hantuchova is not yet in the league of a Venus Williams in terms of marketing and ability, Worcester said it might be only a matter of time.
"I think she is a half a step away from that level," Worcester said. "I personally believe she'll be a top-10 player very soon."
Hantuchova, 5 feet 11, has an all-court game. She has impressed with her power and composure on the court. Pam Shriver, recently inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, has nothing but praise for Hantuchova.
"I love her attitude and work ethic," said Shriver, who has covered quite a few of Hantuchova's matches as a broadcaster for ESPN. "She has a good head on her shoulders. She has everything in place to allow her to reach her full potential. She is a young lady who is seriously set on the highest level of tennis."
Hantuchova's victory at Indian Wells was a turning point in her career, Shriver said.
"You felt like she was growing up and maturing," Shriver said. "Especially in the way she played in the final against Hingis, winning in straight sets. She got a little tense in big points, but she is only human. She never really got flustered."
Shriver also saw Hantuchova pair with Ai Sugiyama to baffle Martina Navratilova in a doubles semifinal in the JPMorgan Chase Open a week ago.
"I saw her play against Liezel [Huber] and Martina Navratilova and she had a couple great return-of-serve games," Shriver said. "It got so Martina and Liezel didn't know where to serve to her. Unless they served an ace, they weren't going to win the point."
Hantuchova - pronounced "hahn-TOO-koh-vuh" - was born in Poprad, Slovakia. She plays piano and speaks three languages: Slovak, English and German. She said she was introduced to tennis by her grandmother.
Hantuchova turned professional in 1999, quickly rising through the ranks in the last four years. She was No.201 in 1999 and finished last year ranked 38th.
Hantuchova credits her coach, Briton Nigel Sears, with keeping her grounded amid the growing buzz surrounding her.
"He's helped me a lot in many different ways," Hantuchova said. "Especially mentally and tactically, he made me much stronger. Physically, too."
She has been able to use that strength off the court as well. Hantuchova may be no Kournikova, but she is learning to handle the media glare, which promises to glow brighter.
"I was very prepared for this, you know, getting so much attention," Hantuchova said. "I think I know how to handle it. The most important thing is to not lose my mind and just work hard every day and be focused on the tennis."