MELBOURNE – With her tall and slender frame, Daniela Hantuchova may not look like a paragon of fitness, but given that she has unofficially played more three setters in singles than anyone else on tour — a whopping 263 – and won 181 of them, that indicates a lot of physical and mental staying power.
On Wednesday at the Australian Open, the 30-year-old Slovakian outlasted Karolina Pliskova 6-3 3-6 12-10. It was just another day in the office for Hantuchova, who will display a stone face on court, but is often full of joy off court, When told of her three-set mark later in the day, she cried out, “Whoo-Hoo! It feels great. I am really proud of the fact that for so many years I have been able to be here, healthy and ready to play and the longer the match it’s better for me. I have to deal with the younger players and the longer the match, the more they get tired.”
So does she almost expect to get in a three-setter every time she goes out to play?
“I would be stupid not to,” she said with a laugh. “You always want to win in two, but I know that if it goes three I will be OK. The tennis you can’t control because it’s either there or not, but the fighting is something you can control.”
Unfortunately Hantuchova faces a dreadful scenario in the next round, trying to stop No. 1 Serena Williams, who hasn’t lost a match in nearly five months and has been plastering the field since she arrived Down Under after Christmas.
Hantuchova has played Serena nine times, seven of those matches at the Grand Slams. The only time she beat her was in the third round of the 2006 Aussie Open, a 6-1 7-6(5) win at tournament when Serena came in out of shape and paid for it.
“I remember I made her move,” Hantuchova recalled. “But obviously she has done amazing things since then. She’s a great champion and I admire everything she has done.”
They have faced off at three Wimbledons, where Hantuchova only won a set. She should have taken her down in 2007 in the round of 16 when Serena was hurt and hobbled, but Serena sent for her shorts late and Hantuchova crumbled.
They also played three times at the US Open, but the Slovakian didn’t manage to win a set there. And the last time they faced off, in New York in 2009, Serena blew her out 6-2 6-0 in the round of 16.
“They kind of ruined my Grand Slam career,” said former top-5 player Hantuchova in reference to the Williams sisters, “Especially the years when I was playing really well I always had to play her or Venus. The only time I made the [Grand Slam ] semis was here in 2008 when I didn’t have to play either of them in the quarters. I think I had chances to go deeper back then, as well as I was playing. It wasn’t easy.”
Hantuchova’s and Serena’s most notorious match was in Los Angeles in 2006 in the third round when Serena took her out 1-6 6-3 6-3. The Slovakian claimed she bumped into her on purpose during a changeover early in the second set. A photographer sitting courtside said that Williams also swore at Hantuchova.
“She always does that,” Hantuchova told me at the time. “She did say something to me on the next changeover, but I’m not sure what it was.” She also accused Serena of faking an injury timeout, a charge that Serena denied.
But that is now water under bridge, at least under the public bridge of pro tennis, even it is still continues to wash over their private ones and take them far downstream away from a friendship.
Hantuchova has been competing at the pro level since 1999 and has played more than 1,300 matches in her career, which doesn’t count Fed Cup, where she has been competed in 35 matches.
She is not as quick or agile as she was when she came on tour, but she still owns a sweet two-handed backhand to die for, has been blessed with soft touch, has developed a bigger forehand and a good first serve. But she serves nowhere with the force and accuracy of Serena, who owns the best one of all time.
“About 80%,” Hantuchova said when asked how much Williams’ great serve has to do with her domination. “When she on it’s like a man’s serve. Her power is incredible and she really serves well when she needs to”
Hantuchova acknowledged that she herself is going to have to serve great in order to win her third-round match against Serena at the 2014 Aussie Open on Friday.
Oh and just one more thing
“Just win the last point,” she said with a coy smile.