Saturday, March 8While others see a 'Skeleton,' Hantuchova sees no problem
By Lindsay BerraESPN The Magazine
NEW YORK -- Yes, looking at her can make you wince.
Gone is the chubby-cheeked, gazelle-legged teenager of a few years ago, and in her place is the nearly-emaciated Daniela Hantuchova we see today. Her heralded 44-inch legs used to be lean and lithe with muscle. Now they are all bones and angles. Her hip bones and ribs protrude, her arms are not much thicker than her racket handle, and the smile that was making her famous dazzles over a pretty face that is gaunt and drawn.
|Daniela Hantuchova's weight loss hasn't affected her world ranking, which stood at No. 9 heading into the Open.|
Her nickname is the "Slovakian Skeleton." At first, it seems mean and harsh. But take one look at Hantuchova, and you'll see, sadly, that it's not really a stretch. Her thinness would be an issue even if she made a living strutting a catwalk. It is more of an issue in a vigorous sport like tennis.
But, comparatively speaking, she looks eons better than she did at the French Open last spring, when her 5-foot-11 frame was rumored to weigh in at just over 100 pounds. It was at the French that Hantuchova was first asked directly if she was suffering from an eating disorder.
"Not at all," replied Hantuchova, who said she was blessed to be able to eat whatever she wants. "I just burn more calories than I actually have in my body. I try to eat calories before matches, but when I play long matches, I just burn so much that it's really hard to get it all back."
At first, Hantuchova's coach, Nigel Sears, refused to discuss the weight of his 20-year-old charge. But, as Hantuchova seemingly continued to lose weight, rumors of an eating disorder gained fervor. Sears has since admitted that there is something wrong.
"Athletes have an appropriate performance weight and it is not good to be over or under that. At the moment, she is under that," Sears said at Wimbledon. "We're trying to deal with it the best way we can, but it's not going to change overnight."
Most people who suffer from eating disorders deny that they have a problem. Many manage to conceal their illness from others. Here are some easily recognizable warning signs of eating disorders. Read more about them on nationaleatingdisorders.org:
Excessive weight loss
Depression and mood swings
Pale complexion/dry skin
Obsession with food and calories
Complaints about being "too fat"
Denial of hunger
Broken blood vessels and swollen glands/cheeks
Fasting and binge-eating
Weakness and fatigue
Depression and mood swings
Teeth and gum problems
Sears says that he no longer lets Hantuchova train aerobically for periods longer than 10 minutes, and that she is working with a nutritionist to bulk up. To her credit, she does look like she has gained a few pounds. But "bulk" is hardly an appropriate word.
In spite of her weight issues, Hantuchova's performance has suffered little. Her serves still regularly top 100 miles per hour. Her groundstrokes are still strong and fluid. She still moves like a ballerina along the baseline. Yet, instead of improving on her quarterfinal appearance at last year's U.S. Open, she fell in the third round to Tamarine Tanasugarn.
Her French Open loss to 18-year-old American Ashley Harkleroad was a hard-fought affair that lasted over three hours, and fatigue was not a factor. At Wimbledon, where the cropped shirt she was wearing revealed protruding ribs and caused another stir about her weight, she lost a strenuous three-setter to Shinobu Asagoe after a battle of a third set that ended up 12-10 in favor of Asagoe. She was near tears after the match when asked if her weight had anything to do with her loss and her fitness.
"I just played one of the longest matches of my career and physically I could have gone on for another two hours," she said.
In her second-round match against Julia Vakulenko on Wednesday, she won 6-0, 7-6. Yet, at several points in the second set against Vakulenko, Hantuchova was once again on the verge of tears.
"I just felt like I should have been off the court much earlier," she said. "I started to make more mistakes. I felt like I was giving her another chance."
Near tears after a well-battled match at Wimbledon. Near tears in Round 2 of the U.S. Open, during a match that she won. Maybe it's not anorexia or bulimia that are plaguing Hantuchova. Maybe it's just expectation. Pressure. The same kind of good, old-fashioned stress than can make even the best of us turn our noses up at a big meal.
Hantuchova is lanky-long arms, long legs, long fingers, narrow frame. When she drops weight, it shows. Yes, it had gotten out of hand, as it does with many women athletes. But, it has also gotten better.
"Maybe before, I used to train too much," Hantuchova said. "At the moment, I think I really got the balance right and I feel great."
Hantuchova has moved up to No. 9 in the world rankings. Ahead of her are the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, and Americans Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati. A tough field worthy of a little anxiety.
Maybe that's it. Maybe it's not.
Regardless of whether or not Hantuchova is suffering from an eating disorder, it is fact that a lot of women athletes do.
And not everyone has a Nigel Sears to intervene.
Lindsay Berra writes for ESPN The Magazine.