The small movements hide it. The way she delicately grips the bill of her visor and tugs it close over her large, wide-set blue eyes. The way she turns and strides to the baseline after a winner, her body erect, tan shoulders sloping forward. The way she takes her racket, falling from her wrist like a club, and gently taps clay from her shoes. Daniela Hantuchova is a designer's sketch come to life: supermodel tall (5'11") and supermodel thin (123 pounds), with leverlike arms, shapely long legs and a paintbrush ponytail. During frenzied on-court moments, she almost always appears composed. But behind every petulant sigh or quiet fist pump, there is a lingering Eastern European cool, a sense of mystery ... an impending danger.
She stole the show at this year's Australian Open doubles final, hitting the court in a slinky, low-cut black number that looked more like lingerie than haute couture. The way Hantuchova (hahn-TOO-koh-vuh) playfully tells it, she woke up, looked out the window at sunny Melbourne and thought, Why not? "I'd worn it before," she says with a coy smile. "But because it was the finals, more people took note." Even her opponents did a double-take. Oh, did we mention that Hantuchova and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario lost in three sets to Martina Hingis and -- hey, what a coincidence -- Anna K?
Maybe it's us. We just can't help it. We see a cute girl with a pretty smile and great sticks, and we want more. Lately, that's just what Dani's given us. Her 6-3, 6-4 pasting of Hingis at the Pacific Life Open in March was her first major tourney win. In May she reached the quarters of the German Open and the fourth round of the French (where she lost to Monica Seles June 1). Since entering last year's Wimbledon ranked No.68 in the world, she's climbed to No.13 in just her third full season on the WTA circuit.
With Anna tumbling, Hingis hurting and Capriati bickering with Billie Jean, a window is opening at the top of the women's game. When Hantuchova walks onto the grass at Wimbledon in two weeks, she will do so under heavy scrutiny. Everyone agrees she has the goods to be Next. Question is, the Next what? She has captured the attention of fans and Madison Avenue, attracting the obvious labels: the new Anna, the anti-Anna, Anna with game. But while she plays along to a certain point, she also lets you know again and again that tennis rules her heart; that beneath the sleek exterior lies a burning desire to be No.1. In a sport that sells sex like no other, she is the Britney of the moment, a teenage girl coming to grips with the power of her impending womanhood.
The trophies don't lie. Venus. Serena. Jennifer. Lindsay. The names etched into the hardware tell the story. No player under 5'8" has won a Grand Slam title since Hingis took the '99 Australian. Big girls rule. And Hantuchova, with crushing groundstrokes and a serve that regularly registers above 100 mph, fits the description to a close-fitting T. "She's aggressive," says her coach, Nigel Sears, who has also tutored South Africa's Amanda Coetzer and the British men's national squad. "She can generate a lot of power off both sides, and she's not scared to take the ball on." Adds former teen champ Tracy Austin: "Her groundstrokes are so smooth, and she's so tall and lean and long. It's like she gets you into a rhythm with her beautiful flowing shots, and then -- boom! -- she changes the pace."
Before her big win over Hingis at Indian Wells, Calif., Hantuchova had come tantalizingly close to knocking off several Top 10 players. She led Capriati 7-5, 4-1 in the first round of last year's Canadian Open before faltering. And in a third-rounder against Venus Williams at this year's Australian, she was up 3-2 in the third set before losing two service games and the match. Entering the final of the Pacific Life, Hantuchova had never faced her idol from back home. (Hingis was born in Kosice, Slovakia, and immigrated to Switzerland at age 8.) But the two did practice together during the tourney, prompting Hingis to note that playing Hantuchova was like "playing the mirror, because she has the same shots."
Dani's combination of size and skill -- she has great touch -- spelled doom for the Swiss Miss. Hantuchova jumped all over her serve; when Hingis tried hitting up the middle, Hantuchova ripped deep groundies and scorched the lines. The overmatched vet had no choice but to wait it out. Sure enough, Dani stumbled down the stretch, losing her serve up 5-2 in the second set. At 5-4, the teen took a deep breath and told herself, "This is the chance I will not let go." Moments later, as another blistering backhand bounced past Hingis (Hantuchova's 33rd winner of the match), Dani dropped her racket and stood frozen on the chilly, windswept court. Finally, she had broken through.
But first, a short detour. Last August, a 16-year-old American named Ashley Harkleroad made her US Open debut. Few remember her opponent (Meilen Tu) or that Ashley ate a bagel in the third set, but everyone remembers what she wore. In the blink of an afternoon's light, Harkleroad's geometrically patterned crop top with matching "skorts" (tight shorts that flared at the seam) became the story of the match. Afterward, "Anna America" was peppered with questions about her skimpy attire. One reporter even asked, "What do you think your mother and father thought of that outfit?"
In WTA circles, it's known as the Anna Factor, and there's no denying its impact. While some players fret about the way their sport is packaged (France's Nathalie Tauziat wrote a book on the subject), the bottom line is that Kournikova has been a boon for the game -- she puts fannies in the seats. The unfortunate flip side is that injuries and lofty expectations have turned her into the tour's running joke, reduced from a Top 10 player to a temptress presumably identifiable by the circumference of her nipples.
Hantuchova seems to find all the fuss amusing -- maybe because she rates so high on the Factor scale. (As a Nike client, she wore the same skorts as Harkleroad in her own first-round loss at Flushing last fall.) Or maybe because her game speaks for itself. "People come to see a nice show," she says. "They want entertainment. What people think about me and how I look on the court is very important to me. But more important than anything is my performance."
Outwardly, Hantuchova's handlers at IMG and Nike are careful about her image, downplaying the Kournikova comparisons even as they ponder the possibilities. It goes without saying that someone as talented and polite and attractive as Hantuchova has the potential to generate enormous exposure. But where's the fun in being subtle? As one IMG rep let slip during a recent match: "Don't you think Daniela's much prettier than Anna?"
The eye-popping outfits and head-turning game belie a girlish curiosity. Hantuchova often giggles when asked a question, turning her sunburnt nose skyward in search of the answer. (English is her third language; she also speaks German.) For a moment, the sheer joy of what is rapidly becoming a fabulous life full of travel and fashion and boys is too much to contemplate. She loves playing the piano. She loves to ski and is quickly becoming addicted to golf. She loves the beach and shopping in Italy. She loves Prada: "Anything from Milan or Roma is for me."
And yet she remains blissfully unchanged by the voluptuous hue of possibility.
So, Daniela, what about the supermodel thing?
"Yeah, I hear that a lot, but tennis is the only thing I'm concentrating on now."
And the money? You can buy a lot of Prada.
"It's nice, but I'm just focusing on my game."
And the boys? Are you still single?
"I'm just enjoying every minute on the court. I know what it takes to be the best, to work hard every day. That's what I'm trying to do ... Yes, I'm single."
Czechoslovakia had a history of molding world-class players, such as Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl. But who would have guessed that after 1989's Velvet Revolution, the smaller and poorer Slovakia would continue to produce top prospects? On the women's side, four players dot the Top 50. Sears, who has traveled to Slovakia three times with Hantuchova, is not surprised. "I went to the club where she learned to play and watched the coaches working with the 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds," he says. "It was fascinating to see how these kids would run from the changeover to the courts. You got the feeling they really wanted to play -- and that's the same feeling you get with Daniela."
Born in the foothills of the High Tatras mountains in the central Slovakian town of Poprad, Hantuchova moved with her family to Bratislava, the capital, shortly after her birth. (Father Igor is a computer scientist; Mom's a toxicologist.) She learned the game from her grandmother, Helena Hantuchova, a former Czech national player. Daniela first picked up a racket at the age of 3; she started working with a coach four years later. When she was 13, her mother brought her to Florida to train with Nick Bollettieri.
Hantuchova's will to work was not lost on the man who has coached everyone from Andre to Venus. During her three winters at the Tennis Academy, she'd show up at 6 in the morning and play well into the night. "She never complained," Bollettieri says. "She always wanted more." He helped her shorten her long groundstrokes, but his biggest contribution was to foster her confidence. Like many tennis parents, the omnipresent Marianna is very protective (but also quite press-shy). From interviews to photo shoots, she seldom lets her daughter make a move on her own. While it's hard to argue with the results, it seems as if the only time Hantuchova has to herself is on the tennis court. "Her mother is a very dominating lady," Bollettieri says. "I say this positively and negatively at the same time. What Daniela's gotta do now is stand on her own ass."
She has come such a long way in such a short time, it's easy to forget that the toughest road lies ahead. No one knows this better than Coetzer, who peaked at No.3 in 1997 and is now No.33: "I'm not sure if getting into the Top 10 is difficult. It's staying there that's difficult, especially for the younger girls after that first breakthrough year. It's tough to follow up."
The hardest part of the job for Sears is managing the expectations. He is constantly hearing how Hantuchova's ascension is a no-brainer. Everyone from Navratilova to Evert to King has said as much. "She has what it takes," says Austin. "The skills, the strokes, the desire. It's just a question of putting it all together on a consistent basis."
Less than a year ago, Hantuchova might wax her opponent in the first set, then lose her focus and drop six straight games. But with every match, with every step deeper into the draw, the stronger and more confident she becomes. She may be burdened with the self-consciousness of a teen, but she has the wisdom to know things are about to get better. "I've shown the top players I can be dangerous," Dani says. Only experience and maturity stand in the way of the game's most lethal supermodel -- a girl on the verge of womanhood, a woman on the verge of greatness.
"Sooner or later she'll get there," says Sanchez-Vicario, a former No.1. "You have to win Grand Slams to do it, but I think she's on her way."
This article appears in the June 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
ESPN The Magazine: IX to Watch
Whether battling the boys or ...
ESPN The Magazine: Boys Don't Cry
Schools blame Title IX for ...
Hot to Trot
Thirty years after Title IX ...
ESPN.com's Tennis Index
The latest news and rankings
Who's on the cover today?
SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...