Daniela Hantuchova has just landed in London. Though the former World No.5 retired from tennis in 2017, her world tour continued as a commentator, and was preparing to call the upcoming US Open for the Amazon Prime after spending lockdown first in the United States, then at home in Slovakia.
“It just felt so nice to be with my friends, and it’s actually something I haven’t done for 25 years!” she laughs as a car took her from Heathrow Airport.
When play suspended for nearly six months, Hantuchova took the time to expand a growing media empire, debuting a YouTube channel in addition to an already-planned podcast, The Real DNA, that combine to invite audiences to explore the life and lifestyle of the Slovak star.
“I go deeper on the podcast, have more meaningful conversations. YouTube is more fun. I’m spending time with actress Zuzana Vackova, and we’re cooking together, involving all of our friends. I’ve always gotten so many questions about my fitness routines, so I wanted to share those, as well. YouTube is where people can get to know me, and the podcast is more about getting to know my guest.”
The Real DNA premiered in mid-April and has released a steady stream of interviews in both English and Slovak, featuring intriguing guests from the tennis world that include current champions like Garbiñe Muguruza, to fellow commentators like Barbara Schett and Hantuchova’s own former coach Darren Cahill, who now works with reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep.
“It’s been amazing and so fulfilling, because my guests have all been people I’ve admired. I’ve learned so much just from talking to them, so I hope listeners can get the same amount of knowledge I got. From a production standpoint, it’s been great to learn another aspect of my new professional life, which is the media, being in front of the camera. It has helped me learn a lot about the logistics that go with creating content, things like audio and editing.”
Hantuchova unveiled the podcast’s 16th episode over the weekend, a one-on-one with champion hockey player Peter Bondra that was recorded in her new studio and filmed for an upcoming YouTube video.
“He and I both come from the same city, and he won the World Championships the same year our team won Fed Cup in 2002, so he may be my most exciting guest yet!”
In between interviews, she returned to commentating for the Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics, impressed both by the level of play and the execution of a new tournament under unique circumstances.
“I don’t think people understand what it means to create an event in just four, five weeks’ time, and with the players being away for so long, I thought they would be rustier in the beginning. All of the girls looked super fit, and I said many times during the coverage last week that having Serena and Venus playing there, on a small court without any crowds, it shows much love they’ve got for the game.
“When I was a player, I fed off the noise, the adrenaline, and those huge stadiums. Sometimes, especially in my junior days, when people weren’t watching, I almost couldn’t care less, because I really loved the fan support. I think I would be struggling out there right now, but they created such a beautiful example for the rest of the players, from all the challenges they’ve gone through.”
Hantuchova often proved a tough opponent for both Williams sisters, defeating Serena at the 2006 US Open and pushing her to three thrilling sets the following year at Wimbledon, and marvels at the American’s ability to adapt with the changing field in almost three decades on tour.
“It’s absolutely a different formula to beating Serena now than it was when I played her. She’s such a great champion who keeps evolving and improving with the game. Certain things may have worked against her back then, but she’s a much better player now, and so opponents have to find different ways to beat her. The sport has become much more physical, so she may still have to adjust to the fact that players are better able to stay with her, whereas she may have been able to hit them off the court in the past.
“Ultimately, she’s such a great champion, and it’s what I admire about her and Venus: they just get better as time goes on. Personally, knowing how much effort she’s put in, I would love to see her win.”
While Williams won’t experience the electricity that a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium can provide, Hantuchova sees the quieter atmosphere as one that can benefit the American as she aims for a seventh US Open title.
“For those who may be feeling pressure or expectation, it might be good that the crowds are not there, and yes, it will be tough for players to stay and eat in all the same places, but that’s usually how we are all the time! We like to go to the same restaurants and stick to the same routines, so in that way, not much will change, except it may not be the place of your choice. It may be a boring routine, but it’s something players and teams often opt to have at most tournaments under normal circumstances.”
Another of her and Williams’ contemporaries will be in action at the US Open as Kim Clijsters plans to play her first major tournament since 2012, and she predicts the lockdown may provide the Belgian with an unforeseen advantage.
“Kim is the one that kind of makes me wonder if I should be on the court instead of in the studio. I’m so happy for her. It’s such a great story, and I hope she does as best as she can. I just hope she can stay injury-free because obviously the sport is very demanding on the body. With the lockdown and everyone being away, it feels like everyone is starting from the beginning. For players who’ve been away with injuries or retirement, they want that match practice, but now all of the players are in that same boat.”
Taking it all in from the commentary booth, Hantuchova, who tagged teenager Cori “Coco” Gauff as one to watch among the younger set, combines her technical approach to tennis with a proximity to her former fellow players that yields an unexpected emotional component to her analysis.
“I analyzed a lot during my own matches, which, maybe while I was playing them, wasn’t such a great thing!” she jokes as she removes her luggage from the car. “I definitely feel the benefits of thinking so much in my matches as a commentator, and I really try to stay in the present moment and react to the matches as they happen.
“I also haven’t been away for so long, so everything still feels a bit fresh. At the same time, I feel compelled to defend all of my players because I remember what it was like. You remember when a commentator was hard on you as a player, and you’re trying to do your best out there. If a player misses an easy ball, I try to explain the conditions that may have caused that - whether it’s the wind, the sun, the pressure they might be under at that point in a match - to help the viewers understand.”
Her most hectic fortnight in months was upon her, but Hantuchova, analyst, host, influencer, remained at ease, employing an old adage about what makes time fly.
“People point out how busy I’ve been the last couple of months, and that may be true as far as time, but it’s hard to consider any of it work because of how much fun it’s all been.”