July 6th 2017 saw the 18 year career of one of my tennis heroes come to a close as Daniela Hantuchova called time on her playing days. Together with first Tim Henman and then Roger Federer, Hantuchova has been the player I’ve admired most for almost two decades.
In that time I’ve had to convince all and sundry that my admiration for the Slovak revolved primarily around her on-court grace and shot-making more than her undeniable attractiveness, but I soon gave up trying to prove this point time and time again.
Apart from being highly intelligent (choosing tennis over university) fluent in six languages and a classically trained pianist, what struck me most about her was her humility and shyness off-court (which translated to an almost vulnerability on-court) and most of all – her love for the game. She respected the sport’s history and was a stickler for the rules.
There was none of the diva effect of an Ivanovic or Sharapova, and her talent was so clearly greater than the Kournikova’s, Kirilenko’s and other ‘pin-ups’ over the years. Ultimately though, it was that lack of ‘killer-instinct’ that held her back, Hantuchova was just a bit too nice.
Although her breakthrough year was well and truly 2002 – with a surge up the rankings, a Premier Tour title and two major QFs – my support for Dani began at Wimbledon 2003.
My dad, fully converted into a tennis nut by my mum would say; “right there, she plays tennis how it is supposed to be played” and so right he was; an all court game with devastating groundstrokes off either wing, a solid serve thanks to her 5,11” and superior skills at the net which enabled all that doubles success.
All these weapons and – crucially – delivered with a delicate grace and a reliance on timing and not brute force that no doubt reminded my folks of a bygone age.
Her infamous capitulation against Shinobu Asagoe at that years’ Championships sealed the deal for me – those heart-breaking scenes as the scarily thin 9th seed broke down several times between points and the media criticism that followed – I would be on her side from then on in.
Of course, that match would go on to represent a microcosm of Hantuchova’s entire career: a rollercoaster of significant highs punctuated all-too-often with sudden nosedives and usually via many a gut-wrenching three set loss which more often than not saw match points go begging.
At times unplayable, a stellar career that promised so much more
Her style was deep groundstrokes from the baseline, moving her opponent from side to side and going for the lines (perhaps all too often with no margin for error), she possessed superb touch at the net as well – no doubt a skill she should have implemented more in matches. Her signature shot was definitely the backhand down the line which especially in her early career, was a match-winner.
There wasn’t a lot of defensive play and her movement wasn’t the best – but at times she was unplayable.
Case in point? – the first set and a half of the 2008 Australian Open semi-finals, Ivanovic had no answer
Especially in the major tournaments, Daniela’s progress was halted by some usual suspects over the years; her bogey players were undoubtedly the Williams sisters who always proved too powerful – especially Serena – and Maria Sharapova also, certainly not a lot of love lost between the two.
Balletic but brittle
So she had all the shots clearly, but what was just as plain was Dani’s mental fragility. No match ever seemed comfortable as a fan – she could throw away contests after being up a set, a double break – you name it. It was torturous at times, many an hour spent staring at a virtual scoreboard at home or in the office, helpless to do anything about the outcome.
Yet, for all the inconsistencies her matches came to encompass, Hantuchova’s staying power in and around the world’s top 30 and for considerable periods the top 10 cannot be denied. (and therefore the top 3% of women’s tennis professionals and the top 15% of those who win enough to earn a living playing tennis full time).
A quick run-down of the stats:
$10,360,596 career earnings (33 in all-time list)
Singles – AO = SF // RG = R4 // Wim = QF // U.S = QF
Mixed – AO = W // RG = W // Wim = W // U.S = W
Fed Cup winner – most wins for Slovakia in history
o 2001 – 38
o 2002 – 8
o 2003 – 19
2004 – 31
o 2005 – 19
o 2006 – 18
o 2007 – 9
o 2008 – 21
2009 – 25
o 2010 – 30
o 2011 – 24
o 2012 – 32
o 2013 – 33
o 2014 – 64
o 2015 – 81
Enough proof then of a real player and not a pin-up journeywoman, but yes it could have been so much more.
Personal highlights for me? Well the Australian Open semi-final is right up there, a Henman-esque story of ‘what could have been’ as defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory yet again, that and the two Indian Wells titles.
But her 2004 season resonates most. A healthier and happier Hantuchova rising back up the rankings from a comparative wilderness of the mid-50’s and a (given the circumstances) dream run to the Eastbourne final.
I have been lucky enough to see her play six times at Wimbledon and three times at Roland Garros – of all those times, I would never witness a defeat.
At Wimbledon having already begun work with Fox Sports Asia, on the day of her retirement Daniela joined David Law and Boris Becker on BBC 5 Live to watch her favourite Fed in round 2 of what would become an 8th trophy at SW19.
So broadcasting seems a natural next step – that and the little curio of her vegan food products which seem to be doing well.
I include some videos below which encompass her best moments and highlight her all-court game which would induce awe and irritation in equal measure.
2002 – Indian Wells match point
2015 – winners aplenty at Wimbledon