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Daniela Hantuchova is one to watch
LEIGHTON GINN • DESERT MAGAZINE • MARCH 2, 2010
Just 26 years old, tennis champion Daniela Hantuchova is also an accomplished golfer, a classical pianist and she even speaks four languages (so far).Watch her compete this month at the BNP Paribas Open.
The BNP Paribas Open, played early on the tennis calendar, has been a tournament where some of the game’s biggest stars have made their debut. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi’s first professional victories came in Indian Wells. In 1999, Serena Williams also earned her first big title in Indian Wells. Later that year, she would win the U.S. Open.
But one of the most unlikely champions arrived on the scene in 2002. That year, Daniela Hantuchova—a promising but little-known 18-year-old from Slovakia—upset the world’s No. 1-ranked singles player, Martina Hingis, to claim her first professional title in her very first final.
Although her career has subsequently gone through its ups and downs, Hantuchova recaptured that magic in 2007 when she won Indian Wells for the second time. Her two titles are tied for the most by a woman with the likes of Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova. Off the court, Hantuchova, with her long legs and slender figure, has been one of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour’s glamorous stars. She has appeared in Italian Vogue and only last year graced the pages of Sports Illustrated’s famed swimsuit issue.
We caught up with her by phone in Las Vegas, yet another stop on her hectic travel schedule.
Your first breakthrough as a professional came in 2002 when you won the Indian Wells tournament. What do you recollect from that victory?
“Obviously I didn’t expect that. It was my first finals ever, not only in a big tournament, but in any tournament. I didn’t expect to win it, but I was so confident and I was playing great tennis. Now when I see how I was playing back then, I think, ‘Wow, did I do that?’ It seems like a long time ago, but I always have great memories from there. It will always be a special place for me.”
What is it about Indian Wells that makes it so special for you?
“I love playing golf. That’s where I got started and I really fell in love with the game. I don’t know what it is, but as soon as I arrive there, there is some magic at that place for me. Overall, we always have such a good time ever since I played the first time, even though it was the (qualifying tournament).”
How good is your golf game?
“It’s not bad. I don’t have much time to play. I did play two weeks ago when I played in Mexico. I once got a hole-in-one. I don’t have a handicap because I don’t play so often. It just takes all the focus away from tennis and it’s completely freeing.”
On your hole-in-one, do you remember the club you used and the yardage of the hole?
“I used a 9-iron and it was in Perth during the Hopman Cup. I was not sure how far it was. Again, it was a long time ago. It was an island shot, so there was water all around it. I was thinking, ‘Hit it anywhere but the water,’ and it ended up going in the hole.”
Did you know you were supposed to buy drinks for everyone?
“It was the first year I started playing golf so I had no idea you were supposed to do that. They told me that afterwards. There were not many people in the clubhouse. But the next day, we did it.”
In tennis, you are playing in a different city, or even country, every week. How much time a year do you spend in a hotel?
“Oh gosh, I would say 90 percent of the year. Sometimes I wake up and I don’t know where I am, especially when you go from tournament to tournament. That’s the toughest part of our sport. Basically, every week we’re in a different place and the times we get to spend with our friends and family at home are not too many.”
How do you find balance in your life with a demanding career?
“I learned it’s important to take time between tournaments to get away and have a bit of a normal life so I’m fresh. Even being in the tournament, I try to play golf and do things that will take my mind away from the court.”
You are one of the more glamorous girls on the tour, but what kind of image do you want to project?
“I just want to be an inspiration for young girls and boys to see that with this sport, you can go a long way. It requires a lot of professionalism and a good work ethic, but if you are having fun with it, you can do great things. For me, I feel like tennis has given me so much, it’s time for me to give back through charities and different kind of things. I’m so thankful for tennis, and I want to give back as much as I can and make people who come to watch me happy.”
What charities are close to your heart and why are they close to your heart?
“I’ve helped build a hospital for doctors and medical staff. It’s something I’m very proud of, but I don’t talk about it. I do it more for feeling good about what I can do to help the world.”
You were talking about being a role model earlier. Who were your role models growing up?
“Definitely Miloslav Mecir. He won the gold medal for our country in 1988 in the Seoul Olympics. It was the first time I saw tennis on the TV. I told my parents to buy me a tennis racket so someday I could play in the Olympics.”
Not long ago, you got a chance to play in that same Olympic tennis arena where you saw Mecir play in South Korea. Can you talk about that experience?
“It was a great. It was emotionally very interesting for me to be in the same place and I felt fortunate to be playing a tournament there. It was definitely inspiring. It’s been more than 20 years since he won it and it was wonderful for me to be there.”
In your bio, it says you were born in Slovakia and live in Monte Carlo, but you also trained in Florida, Spain and England. When you feel like you have to go somewhere to reconnect, where is home?
“You’re right; I’m all over the place. Even now when it’s pre-season, you would think I would be home, but I’m away (in Las Vegas). It’s tough. When I have time off, I especially love being in Monte Carlo. It’s so relaxing and I have so many friends. I love the place, People are very kind and they leave you alone. You can relax there. But talking about home, Slovakia will always be home. That’s where I have my grandmother and my family. My heart will always be there for sure.”
Have you ever added up all the miles you’ve traveled?
“Actually no, but that would be a very interesting thing to do. I’m sure I would be at the top of the list.”
What kind of aspirations do you have for life off the court?
“That’s a good question. I’ve thought about it many times. It’s very exciting, although I love what I do very much and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
For the time afterwards, I can’t wait to do whatever comes to my mind and experiment. For sure, I would like to do something in the fashion world, maybe have my own business, or go to university or have a family. I can’t wait. But at the same time, I feel there’s a lot of years for me on the court and I’m happy with what I’m doing.”
As far as fashion goes, have you mapped out a path you would like to follow?
“More on the designing front, you know, maybe having my own brand or going into cosmetics or perfume. There are many things that interest me and I’ll see what inspires me the most.”
What is your top fashion tip for people?
“I think just keeping it natural and not trying to follow some trend that a magazine says. Be attractive with who you are. Be yourself and keep it simple. Don’t overdo it. That’s the worst thing that can happen.”
I saw you were in the WTA’s mentoring program, and your mentor was Martina Navratilova. What did you learn from Martina?
“I was fortunate to have someone who was so experienced. I also played doubles with her and she gave me advice how to improve as a player and manage things around me. It was great to have someone like her.” Do you plan on being a mentor someday to the younger players? “If I can help, I’m open to it. I don’t know if they would want to listen to my advice, but if the time is right, why not?”
Early in your life, you considered yourself a perfectionist, but later, you said you had to let go of that and it was more liberating.
“I think everyone has to go through different stages. Over the years I learned no one is perfect and that’s not bad. It makes life more interesting and I’m much more relaxed than before. Thanks to that, I enjoy everything much more. It was an experience I had to go through and I had to learn it the hard way, which I’m proud of. It made me aware of which way I wanted to go.”
Was being a perfectionist the reason you learned four languages and now maybe a fifth with Spanish?
“Yes and that’s how I learned to play piano and how I got high marks in school. It was good to set goals that I was able to achieve. For my parents, education was the No. 1 thing. I was proud I finished one of the best high schools in Slovakia.”
Do you ever consider going back to school?
“Yes, for sure. I was already considering doing it on the Internet one day. We’ll see. I will follow up what I did in high school and maybe get another degree."
With your classical piano training, what kind of pieces can you play?
“Those times when I was growing up — I played when I was 6 to 14—I had to play a lot of classical stuff like Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. These days, I look for something more of this time. It’s a great way to relax.”
Did you play in front of large audience?
“Oh yeah, that’s why it was a good school for me. When I had to play tennis in front of a big crowd, it was easy. With tennis, I’m very confident. With piano, I was so nervous. I remember when I had to go on stage for piano, it was terrible. I was never so nervous in my life.”