Harkleroad More Than a Kourna-Copy
By DOUGLAS ROBSON in Paris
Specially contribute to WTAFANS.COM
PARIS - As they slipped out of their warm-up tops at ROland Garros, Daniela Hantuchova and Ashley Harkleroad were near mirror images: Same light blue Nike outfit, same blue and gray shoes, same racket manufacturer. Both sported visors (different colors) and blond hair pulled back into tight ponytails. But there, the similarities ended.
In a tight, tense and topsy-turvy match, American Harkleroad outlasted ninth-seeded Hantuchova, 7-6 (7-2), 4-6, 9-7, proving that these are clearly players headed in opposite directions. The win -- her second over Hantuchova in six weeks -- propelled Harkleroad into the third round of a major for the first time and seemed to confirm her status as an elite-player-to-be.
Heading in the other direction is Hantuchova. The Slovakian, who broke into the top-10 last year and reached a career high of No. 5, has seen her game unravel so far in 2003. The highly touted talent has not advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a tournament since February, has no titles and seems to have lost her mental edge. Concerns about her rail-thin frame have also prompted alarm bells among many tennis observers.
"There is much more pressure than there was for me last year because I was coming up," the 20-year-old Hantuchova explained after the loss. "But now everyone is expecting me to win, and itâ€™s really tough. Everyone wants to beat me. So the opponents are getting tougher and tougher."
She largely deflected questions circulating about her physique, saying her loss "had nothing to do with my physical side."
Floridian Harkleroad, by contrast, does not have a target on her back -- yet. But she, too, has been burdened with expectations since compiling a stellar junior career and being labeled the darling of American tennis -- often drawing comparisons to Russian sex symbol Anna Kournikova for her good looks.
Now the talk can turn to her tennis.
In the last few weeks, Harkleroad -- a junior finalist at the French Open in 2002 -- confirmed that she is most promising American female player under 20. She beat top-25 players Meghann Shaughnessy and Hantuchova in Charleston to become the youngest semifinalist in the history of the tournament, losing to eventual champion Justine Henin-Hardenne. She followed that strong performance with another semifinal showing in Strasbourg, pushing her ranking to a career-best No. 52.
In Paris Monday, she knocked off Japanease™s Saori Obata, 6-4, 6-2 in the first round to set up her rematch with Hantuchova, whom she had defeated in April.
The Roseville, Ga., native almost let the match slip out of her hands. Leading 5-1 in the second set, she grew tentative, losing five straight games as Hantuchova found her range. Down 6-5 and on the verge of defeat, her eyes filled with tears, but she fought her way back into the match.
"I was so tight and wanting it so bad, I guess," she said. "I said, â€˜OK, Ashley, you're not going to lose this. You're going to fight.â€™ I tried to breathe and relax."
The teenager regained her composure to pull it out, screaming for joy and running over to the friendâ€™s box to exchange hugs after Hantuchovaâ€™ s forehand sailed wide.
It was one of 106 errors for the Slovakian in the three hour, eight minute match, in which Harkleroad won only four more total points than her opponent, 135 to 131.
Afterwards, Harkleroad credited a recent coaching change and turning 18 for her recent success.
In March, she and former Argentine great Jose Luis Clerc parted ways after one year, allowing her to join the USTAâ€™s High Performance program. She is now working with former pro Jay Berger and Ola Malmqvist and training with other young Americans in Key Biscayne, Fla.
"Itâ€™s really nice playing with girls because I was playing so much with younger guys," she said. "Theyâ€™re like the nicest girls ever, we get along great. Iâ€™m really enjoying it."
Harkleroad was also freed from WTA Tour rules restricting the number of tournaments a player under when she turned 18 earlier this month, something she said has helped her get into a groove.
"You know, I donâ€™t play one tournament and then wait one month and then have to play another tournament and wait one month," she said.
Added Coach Berger: "You gain confidence and start hitting bigger and winning when you can play more matches."
Indeed, another match is on tap for the rising star. She takes tricky lefthander Magui Serna of Spain for a spot in the round of 16.