Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Getting a Leg Up On the Competition

Here's a stat from the 2007 Australian Open most people don't know, but one which I obsessively love: Daniela Hantuchova has the longest legs in women's professional tennis. The gamine 23-year-old Slovakian beauty, who was recently knocked out of the tournament by power-hitting Kim Clijsters, stands 5-feet and 11 inches tall, with 44 of those inches taken up by her breadstick-thin legs. In other words, her legs are taller than Herve Villechaize.

I've written about Daniela before, as I consider her top of the pops on my list of glamorous women tennis pros, and I'm not alone. Daniela used to be compared to Anna Kournikova for her good looks and is still often considered the supermodel of tennis due to her height and beauty. One British magazine went so far as to name her the world's "sexiest player." (Apparently the comparison riled a jealous Kournikova, who became Daniela's arch-enemy, especially after Hantuchova's sexy low-cut outfit stole the show at the 2002 Australian Open in her doubles final with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario against Anna K. and Martina Hingus.) In ESPN Magazine's "Glam Slam" profile of women tennis players, John Gustafson characterized Daniela's aura as "a lingering Eastern European cool, a sense of impending danger." How telling that observation was.

Rail-thin Daniela was once rumored to have an eating disorder and even now weighs no more than a beefed-up 123 pounds, which is considered "healthy" for her 5-11 frame. In 2003 she climbed as high as number 5 in world rankings, before losing so much weight that spectators could see her ribcage portruding through her blouse. And she started losing more than just pounds. At Wimbledon that year she suffered what commentators called a breakdown, openly crying after losing to a lower-ranked player. She subsequently fell out of the world's Top 40, becoming what one commentator called "a hollow-eyed basket case" before getting her act together again in 2004. Perhaps her demise was a result of the twin pressures of great expectations both on the court and as the standard bearer of Tennis Glamour.

Sadly, what's lost in all the stats about Hantuchova is her stylish game. Obviously someone so frail and lightweight is never going to compete on a regular basis with the power-hitting baseliners like Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and their ilk, being more in the Martina Hingus counterpuncher mold. But lost in all the commentator hype and hoopla over Serena Williams' Australian Open comeback this year is a reminder that the woman who dethroned defending '05 Aussie champ Williams in 2006 was none other than Hantuchova, who pulled a David vs. Goliath upset in the third round last year to send Serena home, 6-1, 7-6.

And speaking of Davids vs. Goliaths, the Aussie Open proves again that there are few delicately-built women on the current WTA Tour who can stay on the court with the heavy-hitting Goliaths of the game. An out-of-shape Serena Williams has twice escaped upsets with her heavy ground strokes and power serves (not to mention the frail nerves of her opponents), while Maria Sharapova's booming serve and ferocious forehand dispensed with another frail Hingus-mold counterpuncher last night in the form of fellow Rooskie Anna Chakvetadze, 7-6, 7-5 (Chakvetadze also obviously had the jitters, twice double-faulting in a key service game by mishitting the head of her racquet on one serve and then serving a blooper that didn't make it out of the service box - on her side of the net!). In fact, the women's semifinals is all power now: Sharapova, Clijsters, Williams and newcomer Nicole Vaidisova - a big serving Czech who leads the tournament in aces.

Sad days for the little ladies of women's tennis, like perpetually melancholy Justine Henin-Hardenne (the Francoise Hardy of Women's Tennis), who is apparently getting over a heart injury, having recently split from her husband. And Daniela? Well, she's got legs, but she's still figuring out how to use them.

Related Links:
ESPN's "Glam Slam" Article
Glam Slam (Accelerated Decreptitude blog) Website Website
Hantuchova Wikipedia Entry


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