Somewhere OVA the rainbow....
SOMEWHERE OVA THE RAINBOW
Tulyaganova, Hantuchova have dreams of No. 1
By Matthew Cronin
They are more than a mouthful when it comes to English speakers pronouncing their names, but both Uzbekistan's Iroda Tulyaganova and Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova believe that their main strengths don't involve tongue twisters, but in the completeness of their games and how that might take them to the top.
But that's not to say that chair umpires and commentators aren't going have a difficult time uttering "Tuly's" name this year.
"When I started playing it was so funny, " said Tulyaganova, who ended last year ranked No. 20 and won two titles. "They say a name and I was like, 'Who am I?' Especially in the U.S., you say you're from Uzbekistan and they say, Pakistan? But at least they don't say Afghanistan."
Not surprisingly, Tulyaganova is by far the best player in her nation's history. While her home city of Tashkent is obsessed with tennis (it hosts both men's and women's tournaments), it has yet to produce a phalanx of Tuly clones – buffed up all courters with a tremendous amount of variety and a longshoreman's work ethic.
"I worked very hard," said the 21-year-old Tulyaganova, a cheerful, funny extrovert. "Before I worked hard but there were days when I wanted to go out or doing something else. If my coach asked me to go biking, I would say, 'Not 30 minutes, only 20 minutes.' But once I grew up, I started to think of being a pro and being No. 1, so I had to work hard. Last year, I wanted to get to top 30 but I didn't think I could get top 20 or make it to the [Sanex] WTA Championships. I was really surprised."
How did Tulyaganova develop her bodybuilder's physique? Five hours a day of practice and an hour of fitness. "It's quite a lot," she said. "At the beginning I didn't think I could handle it but now I like the results," she said. "Now the practice seems to go so fast."
HAS BLASTED 121 MPH SERVE
At 5-foot-7, Tuly has inch for inch the fastest serve on tour, clocking a 121-mph mph bomb last year. She hits a clean two-handed backhand and can also can also hit a one-handed slice, the offshoot of a back injury five years ago when she was forced to drop her left hand off her racket. She has a huge but erratic forehand, a very decent volley and a good drop shot. She talks to herself a lot on court ("You're so stupid!"), making her a more than entertaining player to watch.
The daughter of a boxer (dad) and a volleyball player (mom), Tulyaganova won 1999 Junior Wimbledon. She has struggled this year, mostly because she knows that her fine '01 results came in the latter half of the season and that if she wants to make a big move, she has to show up now. "I know I have a lot of points to defend in the summer so I have to play better now," she said.
"Maybe that's why I'm getting tight. But I have to say I don't care and have fun on court.
Tulyaganova is already giving back to her nation, donating funds, tennis equipment and time to an orphanage in Mehrijon, which was founded by her sponsor and houses a tennis court. Since 9/11, the name Uzbekistan has become much more familiar to geopolitical circles, because Iri's country decided to let the U.S. use it as a launching pad into Afghanistan. Like with many people, 9/11 had a serious effect on Iri's mental well-being.
"After 9/11 I was scared when I was leaving home and how my family was," she said. "I was calling 5-10 times a day because I was really nervous. Then when we found out there was nothing happening in Tashkent, which is about 1,500 kilometers from the border. The U.S. army stays in front of so nobody can bother us. We were happy that the U.S. was there for us. Now everything is good. Now on the border, the people are so happy with the army so they can have work. They are quite poor. In one way they want the war over and in another way they want it to continue because they have jobs."
Given that she is attractive and her clothing sponsor likes to dress in her somewhat revealing outfits, Daniela Hantuchova has a huge job to do in convincing fans that she's not just another pretty girl with no real game (re: Anna).
This year, the 18-year-old is already turning heads with her smooth style, terrific eye-hand coordination and dogged competitiveness. She qualified for Sydney and knocked off Elena Bovina and Maggie Maleeva before falling to Meghann Shaughnessy, and then in Australia, nearly toppled Venus Williams in the third round, losing 6-4 in the third.
On Sunday at Indian Wells, she took a series of brutal punches in the first set against tough Austrian Barbara Schett and lost it 7-5, but then came back and tuned Babs 6-3, 6-1. The 23-ranked Slovakian will now get a shot at No. 3 seed Justin Henin in the fourth round.
"The matches with top players give me a lot of confidence and I hope to finally start to beat them," said Hantuchova. "On one side I'm happy, I'm always playing good matches with them, but on the other side I hope to start beating them soon."
Hantuchova has few holes in her game. She doesn't have a huge serve, but places it extremely well. As the Aussie Open mixed doubles champ, she has showed a sounds hands at the net. She can lace winners off the ground off their side and has a unique ability to find short angles. USTA women's coach Lynne Rolley calls her the "real deal" and believes she has top 10 stuff.
Daniela is impatient to get there. "Especially when you are so close you want start breaking through," she said.
"It may take a little more time and experience to come through. It's more mental than anything. I can play with anybody and beat anybody. It's a matter of playing the right shots at the right time. Everything needs improvement when you want to be the best because you have to be the best at everything."
'GRANNY' WAS COACH
While many players were weaned on the court by their parents, Daniela was taught to play by her grandmother, Helena, a former Slovakian No. 1 who wasn't allowed to travel outside of Czechoslovakia. "She played old style, very flat, slice backhand," she said. " But "Granny" (as Daniela calls her) was a taskmaster. She still plays and often goes to Daniela's practices and her matches in Slovakia.
"Right now she just enjoys seeing me," Hantuchova said. "She was very, very strict but we always had a lot of fun."
Hantuchova's father Igor, is a computer scientist while her mother, Marianna, is a toxicologist. Unlike many players, Daniela actually graduated high school and has further academic ambitions. She speaks three languages (Slovak, English and German) and is learning Italian.
She's expansive in every sense of the word and has even impressed the queen of on-court diversity, fellow Slovak native Martina Hingis.
"She's very solid," Hingis said. "It feels like we have similar strokes. She's got the figure. She's very talented. She can read the game. She's smart all around the court."