Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hantuchova ends her distinguished career

Photo by Diane Elayne Dees
Daniela Hantuchova has retired from professional tennis. The tall, intelligent, articulate Slovakian star leaves the tour as the holder of seven singles titles and nine doubles titles. She also has the rare distinction of holding a Career Slam in mixed doubles. Hantuchova was ranked as high as number 5 in the world in both singles and doubles.

Throughout her 18-year career, Hantuchova has been known for her clean, elegant ball-striking. On a different note, she has also been known for chronic choking in matches, especially big ones. Nerves cost the Slovak some titles, but at times, she was able to overcome them. A very mannered player, Hantuchova popularized the habit of turning her back to the net to collect herself before she served.

Hantuchova's big breakthrough came in 2002 when she not only won Indian Wells, but did so as the lowest-ranked player in history, and did it by beating Martina Hingis in the final. She would go on to win Indian Wells again in 2007. Hantuchova was part of the Slovakian Fed Cup team and half of the 2005 Hopman Cup championship team. She was also voted 2014's Most Valuable Female Player in World Team Tennis.

Daniela Hantuchova was also part of the most intense rivalry in recent tour history, though tennis commentators and writers have routinely ignored it. Hantuchova and Patty Schnyder played each other 19 times. Hantuchova once said she would rather play anyone on the tour than play Schnyder, but she played her over and over, and holds a 10-9 record against her. The opponents' contrasting styles always made for great viewing.

Hantuchova was trained as a classical pianist, and was also offered a university scholarship, which she turned down in order to play professional tennis. She has a gift for learning languages, and speaks several.

The tennis media sometimes had trouble "figuring out" Hantuchova because she didn't fit into any of the convenient "female tennis player" slots. A lover of fashion, she always wore simple utilitarian tennis kits. She enjoyed doing fashion shoots, but objected to the media's obsession with female players' bodies. For Hantuchova, what she did off the court was unrelated to what she did on the court, a concept that really isn't that difficult to comprehend.

My favorite memory of Hantuchova is of her performance, with Ai Sugiyama, in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Australian Open. They played top seeds Cara Black and Liezel Huber in a three-hour thriller that had me on the edge of my seat. Black and Huber won the first set in a tiebreak, scoring all seven tiebreak points. Hantuchova and Sugiyama won the second set, 6-3.

The third set contained some entertaining rallies, but it was mostly about Black and Huber, who went up 5-2 and appeared to be headed for the semifinals. Then suddenly, almost out of nowhere, Hantuchova and Sugiyama went crazy on them, putting themselves in total sync with one another. It was instinctual, and it worked. Hantuchova set up volleys for Sugiyama, who delivered on all of them. This storm of synchronicity had an unsettling effect on Black, which gave Daniela and Ai some room to hit shots between their opponents.

The set went to a tiebreak, and Black and Huber went up 6-2. And as they were once again on the cusp of victory, it happened again--Hantuchova and Sugiyama stormed their opponents and saved four match points. They then proceeded to win the tiebreak 12-10, and advanced to the semifinals.

After Sugiyama retired from pro tennis, Hantuchova decided to take a bit of a break from doubles. But she eventually resumed doubles competition. She was the runner-up at the Australian Open twice--once with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2002) and once with Sugiyama (2006). She and Sugiyama were the runners-up at the French Open in 2009. Hantuchova won her four mixed doubles majors with four different partners.

Photo by Daniel Ward

The thoughtful, composed Hantuchova always cut an elegant figure, both on and off the court. And while she often struggled with inconsistency and nerves, she also clearly loved what she was doing. When she was tuned in, she was a joy to watch.

In retiring, the 34-year-old Hantuchova said about all her trophies and victories: "I won't remember that as much as all the people I got to meet, thanks to tennis." She also said that her strongest emotion was linked to being part of her country's Fed Cup team.

In her retirement statement, Hantuchova talked about joining the tour in 1999 and not knowing what to expect. "I've closed one door," she said, "and now many more are opening up, and the fact of not knowing is what really excites me."

Hantuchova was one of a kind on the WTA tour, and will no doubt bring that distinction to anything she does in the future.


Arsdorf said...

An essay as elegant as its subject. Here in Thailand we well remember Daniella's three come-from-behind championships at Pattaya City. She has been and is an exemplar of grace and beauty.

Diane said...

Thanks so much, Arsdorf.. She really is a class act.

Savannah said...

Nicely written homage to Daniela. I won't lie and say she was fun to watch for me but you're right. She endured on the tour for 19 years and had nice wins playing her own style. She deserved a better send off from teniis media.