Australian Tennis Magazine - January 2003
With her first tournament title and a string of upsets in her wake, rising Greek star Eleni Daniilidou, who's jumped more than 60 places in a year, may be the world's best unknown player. Until now, that is.
By Paul Fein
reece conjures up images of the Parthenon, intellectual giants such as Socrates and Plato, and the Olympic Games - but maybe not tennis. In fact, Greece hasn't produced a world-class player since Niki Kalogeropoulos in the 1960s.
Enter Eleni Daniilidou, who defeated Monica Seles, Amélie Mauresmo, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Patty Schnyder and Daniela Hantuchova in 2002 to finish the year just outside the top 20 and Greece is on the world tennis map again.
Nick Kelaidis, a tournament competitor with Kalogeropoulos then and now Technical Director of the Hellenic Tennis Federation, vividly recalls meeting Daniilidou in 1998. "When I saw her playing, I realised this was really pure talent," he says. "There is no way I can explain it. There was no structures (programs) in Greece then to develop somebody like that. But that doesn't mean you can't have somebody who comes out of the blue and has totally natural talent."
So Kelaidis wasn't at all surprised when Daniilidou, who was ranked an inconspicuous No.84 in January last year, broke through with several big wins and her first tournament title this year. "I was waiting for it to happen, and it has pleased me enormously," says Kelaidis. "Eleni just turned 20, but for Europe, where girls mature tennis-wise at 20 or 21 or 22, that is very young - unlike in the United States where they mature much earlier at 17 or so. And in Greece, where the tennis tradition is very far behind, you need more time to really get into it."
The 182cm and 72kg shotmaker, now ranked No. 24, seems destined as a major, if not daunting force on the WTA Tour for the rest of the decade. "She has the potential to be Top 10, Top 5 or even No.1. And if everything goes well, and if her coaching and all the organisation around her continues to be good, I don't see how she cannot achieve that," predicts Kelaidis. "I am not exaggerating when I tell you that."
Daniilidou previewed that promise at the 2002 Australian Open. With a baseball cap Daniilidou wore irreverently backwards and pumping her fists, she reached the third round and then took a set off eventual champion Jennifer Capriati. But her emergence truly coincided with the arrival of Ute Strakerjahn as her coach in February.
"I thought Eleni has everything a tennis player needs, but she couldn't move," says Strakerjahn, who played on the German Fed Cup team with Claudia Kohde-Kilsch and Eva Pfaff in the early 1980s. "She was a little too heavy, and she was playing crazy stuff, like dropshots from the baseline, and I didn't like her footwork. I knew that if she could improve these areas, she would have a great game to play against almost everyone in the world successfully."
To improve her lower-body strength, Daniilidou lifted weights. Sprints both on the court - to recover faster from the corners - and off it, increased her foot speed, agility and stamina. "She actually didn't lose weight but she gained muscle," notes Strakerjahn.
The hard work began to pay off when she notched her first victory over a Top-20 player, hard-hitting No. 17 Iroda Tulyaganova, at Strasbourg in May. Varying her pace and spins cleverly, Daniilidou also showed mental fortitude in the three-set nail biter.
At Roland Garros, Eleni lost another high-calibre three set second-round duel against 2001 finalist Kim Clijsters - a setback that disappointed her so much that she cried afterwards. "Eleni is an intense competitor and an intense personality in general," says Strakerjahn. "But she learns from every match she loses."
Unlike some other young players who freeze when playing foes they used to idolise, Daniilidou thoroughly analyses their games and capitalises on that knowledge.
"I've seen these big players on TV and known them for two, three years. I studied their tactics and strengths and weaknesses," says Daniilidou. "I was really smart and ready when I played them."
Case in point was a June match on grass against Mauresmo, whose game Daniilidou admired. Learning from a loss to her in 2001, Daniilidou prevailed 6-4, 6-4 at the Ordina Open in Holland because, she says, "I was very confident and believed in myself." Afterwards, she boldly predicted: "Now I'm going to win the tournament."
Daniilidou escaped six match points to overcome second-seeded Henin-Hardenne, the 2001 Wimbledon runner-up, in a 4-6, 7-6 (9), 6-3 semi-final thriller. "For Eleni, it's better to be down in the score than ahead because then she plays better," says Strakerjahn. As if to prove that, Daniilidou rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the deciding set to finish off Dementieva 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 for her first WTA title.
Daniilidou's father, Vasileios, thus far anyway, doesn't fall into the Bad Dad camp the bedevils so many Tour players. In the 2001 book, Venus Envy
, Sonja Jeyaseelan, a Canadian player, disturbingly disclosed: "You can look at a men's draw and find maybe three players who have had a (dysfunctional) relationship with their father. With the girls you might find three who don't."
Vasileios, a dentist, moved the family from Crete to the lively, cosmoplitan port city of Thessaloniki when Daniilidou was three. He purposely found an apartment only 200 metres from a sports centre so that Eleni and her older siblings, Nicolas and Christina, would take up sport. By all accounts, Daniilidou enjoyed a happy, stable childhood.
After a tennis coach wooed little Daniilidou away from basketball, she recalls asking her father, "C'mon, can you please buy me a tennis racquet"
Daniilidou then started playing tennis with a passion matched - or even surpassed - by her father. "He's really in love with tennis, not only with me," says Eleni. "He loves to watch me and he loves to play. He plays three hours every morning."
A former marathon runner and basketball and soccer player, chain-smoking Vasileius is a Sean Connery look-alike. Strakerjahn says the Daniilidou's are an interesting bunch. "The whole family is so wild it's unbelievable, but wild in a positive way. The father was the ringleader in the (French Open) match against Clijsters. He had so many spectators behind him. Last year at the US Open, he baked Greek donuts for all the people supporting Eleni. He's really a great guy."
Not everyone shares that opinion. "Some people think that the father is a great guy, and other people think he is very annoying," says Kelaidis, a friend of the family. "I laugh and enjoy the way he goes about it. But nobody is perfect. Overall, he is a good parent, and whatever he has done is more positive than negative."
Whatever the verdict, Eleni has clearly inherited her extroverted dad's exuberance. She makes no apologies for working the crowds to her advantage like a younger, female version of Jimmy Connors. Using her charm - a winning smile and thrusting her fist in the air after a spectacular shot - Daniilidou says: "I like to play with the crowd and really try to get them with me, even when they are against me. And I really like to play in a big stadium."
Daniilidou first learned how energising spectators could be when she was 14-years-old and amazingly, reached the final of her first profession tournament - an ITF satellite event staged at the Thessaloniki Tennis Club. "I had the entire crowd behind me," she says with a laugh. "I felt really relaxed and happy."
But Daniilidou also would learn that into each life some rain must fall. In 1999, when "I was preparing so well and was actually the fittest in my life," she underwent an appendix operation that sidelined her for three months. "I lost everything - the confidence, the fitness," she recalls.
Bad luck struck again in 2000. Playing only her fourth comeback tournament, a $25,000 event in England, Daniilidou tore knee ligaments while straining to survive a set point. She remembers the operation and six-month rehabilitaion as "the hardest time of my time." Surgeons initially told her that the injury was so severe that she could not play tournament tennis again.
Daniilidou refused to accept the prognosis and did rehabilitation exercises a punishing eight hours a day, especially moving her legs in a swimming pool. "She did everything," says Strakerjahn. "It was like (Lindsay) Davenport or (Thomas) Muster who realised they wanted to play so much. It changed her personality a lot. Because before she was a little sloppy and lazy. She changed when she found out what she really wanted."
"After the operation I was really happy to be on the tennis court again," says Daniilidou. "That's why I try to enjoy tennis every time now. I love to play tennis so much. I took so many positive things from my experiences."
An inability to play doubles regularly has frustrated the happy warrior. "I so much wanted to play doubles in almost every tournament, but something always went wrong," realtes Daniilidou, who boasts a solid serve and volley essential in doubles. "My partner got injured or sick or had to leave for another tournament. Finally, I said to Ute, 'God does not want this,' and laughed."
The problem was made worse because Daniilidou's low doubles ranking forces her to qualify, which turns off some potential partners. Recently, however, Daniilidou, whom Kelaidis describes as a very good doubles player, teamed well with Holland's Caroline Vis, and they plan to compete often together in 2003.
Daniilidou can take pride in two other impressive singles victories, one over a rising star like herself and the other against a tennis legend. At Los Angeles Daniilidou says she "did everything perfectly" to rout Daniela Hantuchova. In what Daniilidou describes as "a great match to watch with big fighting in the second set," she out-slugged Seles from the baseline at Bahia.
But can Daniilidou eventually topple reigning queen Serena and her four-Slam sister, Venus? "I never played them, and I really want to play them." says Daniilidou. "I (still) have to work on a lot of things. But I believe I can beat them."
Daniilidou enjoys a multi-faceted life away from tennis. She was involved in a relationship that ended in June. "I think everyone wants and need a boyfriend," she says. "I don't press. If it's coming, I will be there. And if not, I can wait, of course."
She has fun playing soccer, basketball and surfing. When she's back in Thessaloniki, which isn't often, she likes to drive her sporty Fiat around the city. She also listens to all kinds of music and enjoys reading.
"I enjoy her company. She didn't finish school, buut she's an interesting, educated person," says Kelaidis. "She reads a lot of philosophy and psychology which gives her an insight into things." Daniilidou takes correspondence courses and says she wants to graduate from secondary school, "because you never know what's going to happen in life."
Rather than make a ranking or title prediction for 2003, Daniilidou prefers to talk about a dream she harbours for 2004. "My dream is to play the (Athens) Olympic Games in my country," she confides. "It became a dream when I started to have really good results. In Greece the Olympic Games is so, so big. First of all, it's important to participate. But to get a medal in the Olympic Games would be unbelievable. I will try to give everything to come through."
Eleni Daniilidou FACT FILE-
September 19, 1982, Hania, Crete, Greece.
Sanex WTA Tour singles titles:
ITF Women's Circuit singles titles:
Slow music, fast music and love music
Sport (besides tennis):
"Soccer, but to play, not to watch."
I don't like cimema and TV
Sean Connery (who bears an uncanny resemblance to her dad)
Classy clothes, like Giorgio Armani
Special Thanks to Lapin
for getting hold of the article/magazine in the first place!!!