Hantuchova, Ivanovic persevere despite growing pains

Daniela Hantuchova, who has not missed a major since her initial foray in 2001, will make her first Grand Slam semifinals appearance versus Ana Ivanovic. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- While much of the world may focus on their outer beauty, the journeys Daniela Hantuchova and Ana Ivanovic have taken to their rendezvous in the Australian Open semifinals required inner makeovers that were anything but cosmetic.

Ivanovic rocketed into the top 10 last year, then found a few players sharing that thin air with her to be unsolvable. Hantuchova, the impossibly long-legged 24-year-old from Slovakia, has spent the last five years trying to live up to the expectations raised when she won the prestigious Indian Wells tournament and reached consecutive quarterfinals at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open in 2002-03.

Wednesday, they both wrestled some old issues to the ground.

Hantuchova said she's not just content to have made it this deep in the draw, but also finally convinced she merits it. "Oh, definitely I feel like my game always belonged there," she said. "I just needed, I guess, to improve myself mentally, to believe it. I had people around me saying it to me. It was a matter of time actually myself starting to believe that, too."

The 20-year-old Ivanovic called it "a great achievement'' to have defeated Venus Williams after failing to win a set in their four previous matches. She may be younger than the ninth-seeded Hantuchova, but she made a Slam final four twice last year, only to be steamrolled by Justine Henin in the French Open final and Williams in the Wimbledon semis, respectively. Ivanovic, seeded fourth, is hoping increased strength, stamina and agility will help turn things her way this time.

Hantuchova's early promise began to crumble under the weight of personal distress when her parents split up in 2003. She lost weight and had to contend with open speculation that she was anorexic. Seeded ninth at Wimbledon that summer, she wept on court as she let match points and then the match itself slip away against the 81st-ranked player in the world.

The public dissection of her travails was excruciating for the elegant, cultured Hantuchova, who speaks six languages and was trained as a classical pianist. But as she admits now, the worst pressure came from her own harsh perfectionism. She spent the next four years treading water, usually playing at a high enough level to remain in the top 20, but fading in big matches.

During that time, Hantuchova split with longtime British coach Nigel Sears and began to train with coaches from the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain. When she won her first title in five years at Indian Wells last March, it felt like a rebirth.

"I do think a lot about things, so maybe it just took me a little bit longer," Hantuchova said Wednesday. "But I'm happy for every experience I had to go through."

Hantuchova glowed visibly through her composure after gliding past emerging Polish talent Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-2, to achieve her best-ever showing in a Grand Slam. Her performance was fluid and economical; Hantuchova nailed down points 15 of the 17 times she chose to go to the net.

Ivanovic's tilt with Williams was considerably less crisp, especially at the start. Six of the first seven service games ended in breaks and the women committed a combined 39 unforced errors in the opening set.

But the contrast in their physical form was striking. Williams competed with a heavily wrapped left thigh, while Ivanovic looked tireless as she scampered around the court, stretching for shots she might not have retrieved a year ago. That mobility helped her dig out of an 0-3 deficit in the second set.

Ivanovic said her work over the last 18 months with Australian trainer Scott Byrnes has paid off. "I did a lot of stair sprints, sprints up the hills, in a gym, and also a lot of footwork on the court, specific footwork," she said. "My fitness coach is now trying to focus more on specific work for tennis, and that's obviously getting good results."

Her Dutch coach, Sven Groeneveld, said she also was intent on improving her serve. That's still a work in progress, but Groeneveld sees a subtle change. "When she's struggling to keep her [first] serve percentage up, she knows maybe it's not just her emotions, but a technical issue," he told ESPN.com.

"She's beginning to realize that it's not just how she feels, but how she structures her points," Groeneveld said. "She's matured tremendously in terms of her responsibility towards her career, not just day-by-day, but planning for the long term. I think that since the [2007] French Open final, she's matured faster than any player I've ever worked with." That's saying something, given that his previous pupils include Mary Pierce, Greg Rusedski and a young Roger Federer.

Groeneveld, who works with Ivanovic under an arrangement adidas has with its top players, wasn't able to coach her leading up to that match because of the corporate conflict of interest created by having Henin, another adidas client, on the other side of the net. There will be no such restrictions against Hantuchova or either of the two potential finalists from the other half of the bracket, Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic.

But Groneveld said Ivanovic is quickly becoming capable of preparing for a match like this even when he has to sit on his hands. "I tell her that my not being there makes her stronger in the eyes of other players," he said.

Ivanovic came from a country with no tradition in the sport and did some of her early training in an empty swimming pool. Were it not for the intervention of a wealthy patron from Switzerland when she was in her early teens, she might not be here. In this upcoming battle between two persevering personalities, she probably has more to lose and more of a chance to win.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.