Daniela sounds like a sweet girl - doesn't she? She sounds very well-grounded also. "Go Dani!"
TR.NET: Hantuchova goes from pin-up girl to gritty hero
BY MATTHEW CRONIN
Nov. 7, 2002 12:08 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — Last weekend, Slovak teen and tennis pin-up girl Daniela Hantuchova showed once again that she's more just a runway model with a clean backhand down the line.
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In leading her tiny nation of the Slovak Republic to its first Fed Cup title with a 3-1 win over Spain, the 19-year-old Hantuchova overcame an boisterous crowd on the Canary islands and tricky veteran and former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez in a three and one-half hour three set match.
The scantily clad woman who knocked GQ readers dead last month while posing in an Eastern European tennis babe spread proved that not only does she have game, but she also has heart.
"It's one of the biggest successes I've had," said Hantuchova from the WTA Home Depot Championships at the Staples Center, where she'll play Bulgaria's Maggie Maleeva in the first round on Thursday. "It was so emotional for me because I was playing (for) my country. To bring the Fed Cup to Slovakia for the first time is fantastic. I heard that the reaction was almost like when the guys won the hockey world championships. Every person I knew watched it on TV."
The world got a sense of the 5-foot-11 Hantuchova's guts at the U.S. Open, when she overcame a badly sprained wrist and took out Justine Henin in the fourth round.
"She's going to be a very good player," said Lindsay Davenport of Hantuchova. "She has a lot of weapons and a really bright future."
Developing new tools
Last year, the thin all-courter had neither the mental fortitude nor the shot selection to be able outlast the gutsy Martinez in a hostile environment. But in 2002, she discovered that patience and a warrior's make-up were necessary components of elite players.
"This year I've had so many new experiences," Hantuchova said. "A year ago, I wouldn't have won that match. I love playing matches like that. When I knew the crowd was supporting her so much, it motivated me to be tougher. Against Conchita, I gave everything I had, especially mentally. It meant so much to me that I decided I would fight so hard for every single point. The crowd was so loud behind her, she was fighting so hard. It was one of the best matches I ever saw her play."
Hantuchova was so locked into winning Fed Cup that she wasn't bothered by that fact that her regular doubles partner, Spain's Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, was crying on court after being harassed by a Spanish fan.
"I heard what happened," Hantuchova said. "It was very unfortunate that something like that happened to her in Spain. Of course I felt a bit sorry for her, because she's my partner, but we wanted to win so much. When you are playing against somebody you don't think of her as your partner. I was playing for my country."
It's this killer instinct that has taken Hantuchova into the Top 10. The blue-eyed granddaughter of a Slovak nationally-ranked player can aim a frigid oncourt stare at opponents who don't know how to pull off a sharply angled drop shot or read her very deceptive groundstrokes.
This year she won Indian Wells; reached the quarters of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open; and made the semis of four other tournaments and the final of Filderstadt in October, where she fell to Kim Clijsters 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the final.
"It's been a dream," said Hantuchova, who began the year ranked No. 38 and nearly upset Venus Williams at the Australian Open. "At the beginning of the year I set up a goal to make the championships. That was high goal and I did it last month. Then I wanted to crack the top 10 and I did. Now I'm here as a seed and trying to get my mind on the tournament."
Targeted for the Top 5
While Serena and Venus Williams are clearly locks to stay in the Top 5 next year barring injury or a major emotional crisis, no other players are — including the on-again, off-again Jennifer Capriati, the seriously injured Amelie Mauresmo, the sometimes fragile Justine Henin, or the I'm-often-more-interested-in-my-boyfriend-Lleyton-Hewitt's-career than-I-am-on-my own Kim Clijsters. That leaves the door to the top five wide open for Hantuchova to run through in 2003.
"Definitely, " Hantuchova said. It's very hard to get into the Top 10 because everyone is so great, but top five is a reasonable goal. More than that, I care about how I play, that I give my best and work hard."
The question for Hantuchova this week is whether she will rest on her national heroine laurels, or try to regain some energy after a draining weekend and a 20-hour flight and see whether she has improved enough to challenge the Williamses. Serena straight setted her at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and despite her excellent skills and ability to pick up the balls early, Hantuchova appeared to be physically overmatched. But the Slovak countered that brawn is the not the key to winning matches.
"I don't think strength is the most important," said Hantuchova, who did concede that she's trying to add muscle to her thin frame. "What's more important is the way you think."
Should Daniela get by Maleeva tomorrow and possibly Capriati on Saturday, she'll likely have another crack at Serena on Sunday. Who knows, maybe she catch Serena on a day when the younger Williams is dreaming up a plot for her next appearance on a sitcom?
"The matches last week gave me a lot of confidence," Hantuchova said. "Even though I'm really tired and I left everything there, I'm going to try to do my best here. At the moment, the Williamses are No. 1 and 2 because they have so much power. But pretty soon, if I change and improve, I'm optimistic because I'm ranked No. 8. There are so many players ranked ahead of me who have much more experience. I should get better physically and mentally I have things to work on. Hopefully I will start to challenge them and give them tougher matches."
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