Daniela Hantuchova: 'There is way too much emphasis on how we look. Focus on my game'
Brian Viner Interviews: She seemed to have it all - a graceful game, a formidable intellect and the looks. But rumours in 2003 that she had an eating disorder almost ruined the Slovak star's career
Published: 15 June 2007
Daniela Hantuchova is a couple of months older than her good friend Kim Clijsters, and watched with decidedly mixed feelings as the popular Belgian hung up her racket, seemingly for good, as a competitive tennis player.
"I feel we've grown up together, Kim and me," Hantuchova tells me, "so it's very, very strange. On the one side, I can totally understand where she's coming from. As a top tennis player you sometimes want nothing more than a normal life. On the other side, with the talent she has, she has done so many great things but could do much more. It's a personal choice and I haven't yet talked to her about it, but my manager is always telling me about the danger of doing too much too soon. The advice I get is to stay patient. Sometimes it's better to go the longer way round, and then you appreciate everything much more, because maybe you're more ready for it."
Five years ago, although still a teenager, Hantuchova seemed more than ready. In the 2002 Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells in California, generally considered the most important women's tournament away from the Grand Slam events, the Slovakian beat Martina Hingis in the final having dispatched Justine Henin along the way. She beat Henin again in that year's US Open, where, as she had earlier that summer at Wimbledon, she reached the quarter-finals. Tennis duly heralded another star from the east, and the tabloids heralded another looker. Hantuchova was strikingly pretty and stood 5ft 11ins in her bare feet. She spoke four languages and was eloquent in all of them. She was also, we were told, a classically trained pianist ("yeah, Beethoven, Bach, all that stuff," she confirms to me). The assets of Anna Kournikova, a more established object of tabloid fervour also from the former Eastern Bloc, seemed limited by comparison.
Moreover, Hantuchova played tennis with grace and artistry, words that appeared to have been all but crushed by the blitzkrieg that was Venus and Serena Williams. By early 2003 the youngster from Bratislava was ranked fifth in the world, behind the Williams sisters and the two Belgians, Henin and Clijsters. Plainly, a first Grand Slam victory beckoned.
Then, Hantuchova's world caved in. In the second round at Wimbledon that year she played Shinobu Asagoe of Japan and surprised nobody, Asagoe doubtless included, by romping through the first set 6-0. Yet Asagoe won the next set 6-4 and the epic final set 12-10, and Hantuchova left the court in tears. It was the start of a precipitous decline that was accompanied by startling weight loss, prompting widespread rumours that she was suffering from an eating disorder. She plummeted out of the world's top 50 and seemed destined never to achieve her early promise, until this year when she again won at Indian Wells, lifting her second Sony-Ericsson WTA Tour singles title, this time at the expense of Svetlana Kuznetsova. She has put weight on, has recovered her considerable poise on the court, and now stands on the brink of re-entry into the world's top 10.
It is quite a sporting story, and to learn more about it I have travelled to meet her in Berlin, where she is playing in the German Open. After numerous meetings postponed because of rain-affected matches that keep getting stopped and restarted, we finally get together in the capacious lobby of the Inter-Continental Hotel, where every male head, and not a few female ones, follows her progress across the marble floor to where I am waiting for her on a vast sofa. The brisk handshake and my tape-recorder, not to mention 20 years, thoroughly blow any pretence that I am there for anything other than professional reasons, but I confess that I quite enjoy the fleeting burst of reflected limelight. We middle-aged men must get our kicks however we can.
I ask her, after a few opening pleasantries, whether she found it hard to deal with the rumours that she was bulimic or anorexic. "Yeah, it wasn't nice. Especially because it is absolutely 100 per cent not true. It is the biggest... I don't know how to say it in a nice way." Then say it in a not nice way. "OK. It's the biggest bullshit. Yes, I did change shape, because there was too much pressure on me and I was not ready to handle it all. Now I hope that I can be some kind of inspiration for young kids, by showing them that you can turn things around. Everyone matures at a different age."
Compounding the expectations heaped on her as a tennis player was the trauma of her parents splitting up. Theirs had always been a close family (she has one brother, five years older) and she was devastated when her parents' marriage foundered, with suggestions in the Slovakian press that her father, a university professor, had become involved with one of his students. This is a subject Hantuchova declines to discuss, reasonably enough. But she doesn't mind dwelling on the publicity surrounding her dramatic loss of weight.
"I think," she says, "that there is way too much emphasis on the way we look in sport in general. With the guys nobody bothers, except to say that Ronaldo has got a little bit heavy or something. But with the women, there is too much. Everyone has a different shape. People should focus only on the game."
Hantuchova, I should add at this point, is sitting with me in the lobby of the Inter-Continental wearing a jauntily angled beret. She adores fashion, is sometimes seen at fashion shows, and has ambitions to design her own range of women's clothing. So is she not trying to have her cake and eat it, if that's an appropriate metaphor, by wearing eye-catching outfits designed to make the most of her long hair and long legs, yet willing the media to concentrate only on her tennis? A smile. "But why shouldn't I wear nice things? I know what you mean and I guess I can't have it both ways. But it's not just me. Jennifer [Capriati] worked so hard in the gym yet there was still so much pressure on her, saying she was heavy. Serena [Williams] gets it too. It's really not fair."
Hantuchova's beguiling eloquence in what is her third language (behind Slovak and German; her fourth language is Italian) makes me wonder whether tennis' gain is linguistics' or diplomacy's or perhaps the international fashion industry's loss? At any rate, she seems to have a wisdom well beyond her 24 years, and an intellect that is rare in sporting circles. Does she ever reflect on the notion that tennis might just be a rather frivolous way of earning a living? She nods. "Yes, I do. My father is a professor [of computing], my mother studied pharmacy and worked at the Ministry of Health, my brother is an architect. Everyone in my family has a university degree except me. I know that tennis is not stretching me. I say to my parents, 'look what you guys have achieved'. What do I do? I hit a yellow ball."
And yet, by hitting that yellow ball well enough to win the odd Grand Slam, she could potentially earn more in her short career than her mother, father and brother combined?
"Yes, but I don't think about money. And anyway I don't think the rewards in tennis are too big. Basically, you have to give up everything else in your life. You talk about winning Grand Slams. That's not a job from 8am to 4pm, that means you have to be committed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"People don't see everything we do. They see we go to beautiful places, but we're in a different hotel room every week, for maybe 10 months of the year. OK, the hotels are nice ones like this, but it's not home. I get homesick a lot. But I also know that it's a big privilege to do something in life you love, and I do love tennis."
The extent of that passion comes across when she talks almost lyrically about the purity of her practice sessions with her latest doubles partner, Martina Hingis. "It is a feeling I only get with her, an unbelievable feeling. In Miami we practised with wooden rackets, because someone wanted us to try them, and the ball came off the racket so perfectly." For a second I think she might cry. "That's why I was so pleased to see Martina coming back. Tennis is not all about power, it's also about rhythm, and she proves that more than anyone. I'd always wanted to play with her but then she retired. Once she came back we said for sure we will play together, although I was committed to Sugi [Ai Sugiyama]. We waited until the time was right, and it has been so much fun."
As for the woman Hingis was named after, Martina Navratilova, she too has been an occasional doubles partner, and a source of great inspiration, as well as anxiety.
"I played a singles match against her in Eastbourne a couple of years ago, which I won, but I have never, ever been so nervous in my life. I normally don't really care who's on the other side of the court, but with her that was all I could think about."
Because Navratilova was from the former Czechoslovakia, like her, and a girlhood role model? "No, because she was already in the States when I grew up. Miroslav Mecir was my big tennis hero. He won the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, which was the first time I had ever seen tennis on television and it had a big effect on me. I was only five but I said 'I want to do this'. He was my inspiration.
"But Martina has been a big help to me. She has given me lots of advice, for example how to use my weapons on court. She knows that I think a lot on court, maybe too much, and she tells me that tennis is not as complicated as I sometimes think. I make the mistake of seeing tennis as a chess game, with so many different options.
"Sometimes if I have time and a big shot to hit, I think too much about whether to go for a short angle, a hard shot down the line, or whatever, you know. I just need to be a little smarter. Play the right shots at the right time."
If she can begin to do that at Wimbledon in a little over a week's time then she might progress further than the quarter-final, which is still the limit of her success in Grand Slams. Wimbledon is the title she craves more than any other.
"Oh yeah, that's the one, for sure. I've been in the final at Eastbourne, grass is definitely my favourite surface. And I love the history at Wimbledon. For any tennis player to be part of that is amazing. The first time I went there, I just can't describe it. To see all the people lined up outside, I got goose bumps."
She will, of course, be just one of the dozens of -ovas and -evas competing at the All-England Club. I ask her how she explains the extraordinary proliferation of female tennis players from the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe?
"It's the mentality," she says. "We are prepared to work very hard to get there, no matter what it takes. We're not spoiled. In the West, it's sometimes hard to stay motivated if you are given everything when you are young. And the worst thing is when parents push their kids too hard. In our part of the world the desire comes from us. No one needs to push us. In fact my parents were the other way." For the first time in the interview, she giggles like a 24-year-old. "They'd say 'that's enough tennis, now let's go and study'."