I wonder if Daniela will be able to build up some muscle?
Year of the Big Breakthrough: Daniela Hantuchova
A touch of glamour, an abundance of talent
By Ronald Atkin
22 December 2002
Beyond dispute, women's tennis this season has been dominated by the bludgeoning stuff served up by the Williams sisters. But 2002 will also be treasured as the year of the million-dollar babe, the long-legged Slovakian 19-year-old Daniela Hantuchova, who shot up to eighth in the world rankings. She banked just under $1.2 million in prize money, won her first big singles title and came to the eager attention of Britain's tabloid press: "Sport's sexiest star", "Legs from Slovakia".
Daniela has the kind of figure that looks a treat sashaying down a catwalk, something she actually tried at a tennis-cum-fashion occasion in Dublin a fortnight ago, and Anna Kournikova's hegemony as the WTA's top squeeze is under serious threat. Unlike Kournikova, however, Hantuchova has done the business on court, too. Her first tour victory came at Indian Wells in March. This was a Tier One tournament, second only in importance to the Grand Slams. She won $332,000, clocked up her two most significant victories, over Justine Henin and Martina Hingis, along the way and became the lowest-ranked player (25) ever to win a women's event of this importance.
So, inside three months, Indian Wells shattered the goals set for the entire year, a tournament victory and a place in the top 20. Those goals were set by Daniela's coach who, glory be, is an Englishman, Nigel Sears. After that, the year just became more and more rewarding, with a runner-up spot at Filderstadt, semi-final places at Eastbourne, Montreal, New Haven and Linz, and six quarter-final finishes, including Wimbledon and the US Open. Hantuchova won 56 singles matches, displayed skills on all surfaces and in all events, winning two women's doubles as well as the Australian Open mixed title, and led Slovakia to victory over the five-time champions Spain in the Fed Cup final.
Daniela is spending Christmas training in South Africa with Sears in readiness for the Australian circuit in the New Year, honing the game which persuaded Hingis to describe Hantuchova as "fearless", and building muscle and technique to take on the dominant heavy hitters like Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati and the Williamses.
After what he says are "too many" depressing years coaching in Britain, Sears is understandably jubilant. He teamed up with Hantuchova at the invitation of her agents IMG in the summer of last year following a successful spell with Amanda Coetzer, and can be forgiven for gushing.
"Daniela is very open, very honest, lovely, absolutely lovely. One of the first things I asked her was what she wanted out of the game and she said, 'I want to be number one.' That was an important answer. I've always dreamed of coaching a Grand Slam champion and this is the best material I've ever had. She's not someone who dreams of being successful one day, she wants it now."
Sears terms Hantuchova "an exceptional talent" who works assiduously at improving her game. She already delivers surprising power from a slender frame, and as Daniela herself observes: "I have a big serve, plus a good forehand and backhand. I think I have a good all-round game."
The daughter of academics and born in the Slovakian town of Poprad, Hantuchova began playing at six, taught by her grandmother, a former national champion. A promising junior career persuaded her to turn professional rather than pursue the offer of a place at an American university. The results this year have underlined the wisdom of that decision, though Sears stresses there remains room for improvement: "Her net game needs to be a lot better and she needs to be braver coming forward. But she can do it, it will come. She is one of the few girls who not only possesses a great kick serve but also has the ability to take risks and hit a top-slice serve into the body.
"Daniela is smart enough to be able to follow her game-plan and understand what you are talking about. If you talk to her about doing something, she can execute it. And there are not many people who can do that. The bottom line is that she loves the game, she genuinely loves to play. She comes out every day wanting to get better.
"Not only is she exceptionally talented, but she works at it as her job. In those terms she is by far the best player I have worked with. She can go right to the top. But whether she goes that far or not, she will give everything she has. A coach can ask for no more."
Except, perhaps, a personality. Which Daniela Hantuchova clearly has, too. For the women's doubles final at the Australian Open in January, she turned out in a neat little number, a black cocktail dress. Beat that, Kournikova.
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