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Ashley Arrives: Harkleroad Edges Hantuchova In Three-Hour French Open Thriller


Photo By Susan Mullane By Richard Pagliaro
05/29/2003

Ashley Harkleroad suffered a service break and then she broke down. The 18-year-old Harkleroad had blown a 5-1 third-set lead against Daniela Hantuchova, surrendering five straight games to face a 6-5 deficit. Elation was replace by impending elimination.


Sitting in her court-side chair, the enormity of emotion was briefly too much to bear and the player who had resembled a poised pro for two sets was now just a kid from Flintstone, Georgia sobbing into her towel for solace.

It was a heart-wrenching moment for Harkleroad's supporters to watch. But then she slowly stood up, stepped purposefully back on the court and showed a huge heart still beat within the body of a player who had won only one three-set match this season.

On kid's day at Roland Garros, the youthful Harkleroad came of age to edge the ninth-seeded Hantuchova, 7-6(2), 4-6, 9-7 in a dramatic duel that spanned more than three hours and stretched the nerves of both players past the breaking point. In the end, only two points separated the players as Harkleroad won 133 points, while Hantuchova won 131.

The victory vaulted Harkleroad into the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career.

"I got a little tight and I was just trying to breath and stay relaxed," Harkleroad said of her sideline sobs. "I was so tight and wanting it so bad, I guess. I said, 'OK, Ashley, you're not going to lose this. You're going to fight.' I tried to breathe and relax."

Relaxing at 5-6 in the third set of a Grand Slam is about as easy as sweeping the the red clay court clean with a toothbrush.

The third set wasn't so much about tennis as it was a character test for Harkleroad, who crushed Hantuchova, 6-2, 6-1 in a quarterfinal conquest at the Family Circle Cup last month. When she opened a 5-1 lead in the third set, Harkleroad seemed assured of repeating the feat today. But instances of immaturity crept into her game. Harkleroad began rushing to prematurely conclude points by hitting her favored backhand-down-the line even when the shot wasn't there. She squandered two games as Hantuchova held for 3-5.

The hold gave Hantuchova hope. In the second set her coach, Nigel Sears, was so disgusted by his charge's demoralized demeanor, he walked out on her, leaving Hantuchova to dig down deep from within and try to figure out a way to fight back in the match.

Sensing the 52nd-ranked Harkleroad was getting increasingly tight, the slender Slovak settled down and began playing higher-percentage shots.

Serving for the match for a second time, Harkleroad rushed three consecutive down the line errors to hand Hantuchova double break point at 15-40. Harkleroad got the game back to deuce, but netted successive backhands to hand Hantuchova a service break at 4-5.

The bandage she sported remained wrapped securely around Harkleroad's right elbow as the 2002 Roland Garros junior runner-up's nerves unraveled.

With her coach, Jay Berger, studiously scribbling notes on a pad and her father, Danny Harkleroad, nervously gnawing at the same piece of gum, Harkleroad showed signs of a mental meltdown in the next game. Clearly rattled, she badly blasted a backhand return wide, mis hit a forehand off the frame, netted another backhand and when her final backhand of the game flew well beyond the baseline, Hantuchova had evened the match at 5-5 and was pumping her fist in triumph.

Though she's so thin, she can look physically fragile at times, Hantuchova possesses a powerful ground game that she unleashed in the 11th game. Ripping a pair of forehand winners that Harkleroad could not retrieve, Hantuchova earned double break-point at 15-40. Two points later, she calmly crouched low and blistered a backhand pass down the line to seize a 6-5 lead.

Though the players were clad in identical baby blue Nike outfits, at that moment they couldn't have been farther apart on the emotional scale as Harkleroad was reduced to tears by her predicament.

The breakdown was brief.

Courageously facing her own fears and quickly regaining, Harkleroad hit a forcing forehand that Hantuchova could not handle and broke back at 15 for 6-6. Harkleroad won eight of nine points as she regained the lead at 7-6 before Hantuchova's overhead winner leveled the match again at 7-7.

"Since there isn't a tiebreaker in the third set, I felt like I wasn't being pressured as much," Harkleroad said. "I was just trying to stay focused and concentrate."

The pivotal point in the match came in the 15th game. A desperate Harkleroad sprinted from beyond the baseline to run down a drop shot, then scrambled to her right to cover Hantuchova's reply and blocked a volley winner into the open court. The shot gave her a 40-15 lead at precisely the time the match turned three hours old. When Hantuchova netted a return, Harkleroad held an 8-7 lead and felt the time to close was at hand.

"Sometimes I was going too much for it and doing too many mistakes," Hantuchova said. "In the end, it was just a couple of points that decided the match."

The final game reached deuce when Hantuchova flatted out a deep forehand drive, followed it into the net and deposited a swing forehand volley wide. It was the first swing volley she missed the entire match and gave Harkleroad a match point. When Hantuchova guided a backhand wide, Harkleroad shrieked a loud scream of pure joy, hurled her racquet in the air then hugged her father and coach.

In the third round, Harkleroad will play either 23rd-seeded Anna Pistolesi or Spain's Magui Serna
 

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wow sounds like a great match wish I could have seen it - she'll have a tough time against Serna but she sounds like she's playing well
 

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Well I dont think its that much of a problem as she was going for a her shots all the time. She kept playing with it, there was some masking tape which kept coming looe from it.
 

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I only saw the third set, but it really was a great match from both players. I hope that Ashley can use this win to really bring her game together. She will need it against a tough clay courter like Serna.
 
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