Hantuchova takes glam slam
Daniela Hantuchova's Wimbledon warm-up has consisted of being told she is too thin. A couple of tennis matches in Eastbourne have also entered the frame, but the principal focus of media scrutiny has been the prominence, or otherwise, of her ribcage as against the performance, or otherwise, of her forehand.
Model player: Daniela Hantuchova's looks attract plenty of attention
She has been front and back-page news, but not necessarily for any sporting reason. At last year's Wimbledon she was introduced to Britain as the girl who out-looked Anna Kournikova, with longer legs and, praise be, even a fair game of tennis. This year she has been reintroduced as a waif.
It is marvellous the way glamour is perceived in such strictly drawn tramlines, like the immaculate white margins of the grass courts themselves. Wimbledon is like biblical Egypt. There are years of plenty, when female tennis players' bottoms are compared to coal bunkers encased in straining lycra. And there are years of lean, when the women's dressing room is rumoured to be packed with anorexic twiglets on the brink of hysterical burnout.
This must be a year of lean. Meanwhile, the victim of this gossip and speculation is far from a hollow-eyed basketcase. Whatever the truth of the matter, the 20-year-old Slovakian is a ravishing rose-cheeked beauty who defends her exceedingly slender frame as a by-product of hard work. Listening to her describe the pace of her life, this becomes distinctly plausible.
"I have worked very hard this season to be really, really ready. I have been playing so much and training so much that I have burned more calories than I have taken in. I wouldn't say it's a problem. I'm really glad I can eat anything I want." This is said with assertion that borders on waspishness. Subject swatted.
Nearly. What about the suggestion of anorexia? Her smooth, serene expression betrays no angst to be thus challenged. "I have proved that physically I don't have any problems. I played a three-set match in Berlin. I played a three-set match in Rome. It was my opponents who were struggling while I felt fine. So it's a nice problem. I have to eat more. I think a lot of people would like that."
Never a truer word spoken. A lot of people who will be gorging themselves on strawberries and guzzling Pimm's by the calorific jugful would love to eat and drink as much as they like and never suffer the consequences in girth. Whether they will also be watching the No 9 seed reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals as she did last year remains the intriguing question. It may or may not be significant that she opens her campaign today on Court No 2, known as the Graveyard of the Seeds.
Her confidence will not be at its highest. At the French Open last month she brought the wrath of her English coach upon her for making 101 unforced errors in a second-round loss to the lower-ranked American teenager, Ashley Harkleroad.
"I didn't like her attitude," said Nigel Sears at the time. She didn't much like it either but, by the time she reached Eastbourne, she had rationalised, perhaps minimised, the occasion in her mind. "Nigel didn't really say I wasn't trying my best," she equivocated. "I was trying. But sometimes it doesn't go your way. That's tennis."
The implied shrug of indifference in this statement is entirely out of character. It becomes apparent that Hantuchova is a high-achiever. None higher, one suspects, in the whole of Slovakian sport. She is the daughter of a professor in computer science (father, Igor) and an eminent toxicologist (mother, Mariane). Her elder brother, Igor junior, has just qualified as a architect and her grandmother, Helena, a former national tennis champion in Czechoslovakia, is the pivotal figure of her granddaughter's life.
It was grandma who coached little Daniela from the age of six, instilling the principles of intelligence and technique that characterise her play today. "The most important thing she taught me was to enjoy my tennis. She was happy as long as she could see a smile on my face. She also insisted that I always tried to use all my shots, not just hit forehands and backhands mindlessly. Tennis is a game not just of power but intelligence."
The tennis club in Bratislava in those days boasted 10 clay courts and a small girl having to be forcibly restrained from hitting balls against the wall into the night. Her grandmother was a friend of Ivan Lendl's mother, famous for tying her boy to a netpost while she played. Little Daniela would have balked under such restraint, so determined to hit tennis balls all day.
But, growing up, that was only one facet of her existence. "I studied very hard. My parents were highly educated and valued intelligence very much. I was sent to one of the best high schools in Bratislava. I was very good at mathematics, physics and computer studies. I enjoyed learning languages but I liked everything I studied. I had top marks always, always, always. Tennis was fun but I knew studying well was very important too.
"Fitting everything in was unbelievably tough because sometimes I was just so tired. I was going to the court in the afternoons, practising, training and then studying until very late. I went on the tour at 15, so I was also travelling and playing tournaments. I was training in Florida and flying back to Bratislava every half-year to pick up the books and the papers I needed to study. I would work on my own and then go back home to take the exams.
"I am very proud that I finished my studies because the work was very, very hard."
Media glare: Daniela Hantuchova has been the subject of much speculation
If anyone supposed she would greet the end of her academic workload with a determination to lay on a sunlounger for the rest of her days is swiftly relieved of the impression. Playing tennis does not quite satisfy her hunger for employment, so now she is learning Italian. Already fluent in Slovakian, German and English she is grateful for the mental occupation.
She could also accompany Sir Cliff Richard on the piano if he was moved again to provide musical distraction during rain delays at Wimbledon. She spent eight years studying piano, culminating her absorption of the finer points of Rachmaninov in a concert. To a few of her rival tennis players, she must be frighteningly multi-dimensional and accomplished. To also be the proud bearer of 44-inch long legs (and the concomitant wardrobe of very short skirts) represents a super-abundance of virtues.
But no one has it all. Serena Williams, she agrees, possesses the most obvious hallmarks of a Wimbledon champion. "Well, it's very difficult to play both Williams sisters on grass because they are so powerful. In any other place I think it is possible to beat them, as Justine Henin-Hardenne proved in Paris when she beat Serena in the semi-finals, but at Wimbledon they are very tough. Venus, I would say, is a little bit mentally weaker at the moment but they are still both great players.
"I know I have never really played my best against them. I am working as hard as I can to get mentally and physically stronger but, of the two, the mental approach is the most important. As I have said many times, the head is the most important thing on the court. The Williams sisters can intimidate people a lot. But it is up to us to think, to believe, that we can beat them. There are all sorts of things a powerful head can do that a powerful arm cannot.
"I try to prove that all the time on the court. To show people that thinking is very important. It is what my grandmother taught me. To think. And actually I wouldn't say I was intimidated by Venus and Serena. What I would say is that it is a matter of experience. All the girls in the top 10 have been around for much longer than me and played many more matches. It is just a matter of experience.
"That is very motivating for me, in fact. Even though I am in the top 10, I still have so many things to learn."
Slovakian history is not one of them. She remembers the separation between the Czech Republic and Slovakia quite clearly, aged 10 at the time. "I was very happy. Before that, in my grandmother's time, it was impossible for athletes to travel. I expect she remembered the time when the Russian tanks rolled into the old Czechoslovakia, but she never wanted me to know too much about that. It was not a very nice part of history: she was a schoolteacher but she thought it was better not to talk about that to the kids.
"Now Slovakia is very strong in sports and very proud. We are prepared to work very hard because we are such a small nation. We are proving we are a talented, intelligent people and we want to show this to the world.
"My grandmother is still alive. She is 76 and now retired as a schoolteacher but she is still playing tennis, still skiing. She hasn't travelled to see me play out of Slovakia yet, but I hope that she will see me at Wimbledon one day. She would definitely love to go."
The affinity of the Hantuchovas with Wimbledon is difficult one to explain at first sight. There was not a single grass court in Bratislava and the very first time Daniela set foot on a grass court was to play in a pre-Wimbledon junior tournament. Any prior practice had been ruled out due to rain. "But I won and I loved it."
She adds: "It suits me because I like to be aggressive. I look to dominate from the very first point and I have been working hard with Nigel on my volleying. Wimbledon is also the first place I remember seeing on television. To me it is a very special place, like a cathedral with all its tennis history."
Already she is part of that lore. Two years ago she won the mixed doubles title with Leos Friedl of the Czech Republic, a partnership of political reconciliation and East European determination. She rose a year later to fifth in the world rankings and took the opportunity of her burgeoning fame to model in her rare spare time.
She is now experiencing a blip in form and concentration, not helped by the continuing speculation into the state of her health and well-being. Obviously, she needs to lie around lazily and consume ice-cream by the bucketload to placate the onlooking media. Unfortunately, it is not in her genes.