Hantuchova falls just short of full recovery

Final warm-ups: Kuznetsova too strong for Slovakian who is showing signs of putting troubled times behind her

A heart-warming return to the tennis big-time by Daniela Hantuchova stuttered just short of the finish line in the final of the Hastings Direct tournament yesterday.

A heart-warming return to the tennis big-time by Daniela Hantuchova stuttered just short of the finish line in the final of the Hastings Direct tournament yesterday.

The Slovakian, whose ranking slumped from No 5 to 54 in a year of trauma and who was competing only by courtesy of a wild card, served for the title in the second set, only to end up on the wrong end of a 2-6 7-6 6-4 scoreline against Russia's Svetlana Kuz-netsova The 18-year-old Kuz-netsova, formerly a doubles partner of Martina Navrat-ilova, stared hard at her fourth runner-up finish of 2004 at 4-5 in the second set, only to end up an hour later clutching the winner's cheque for £52,730 after a two-hour, eight-minute match which had been rich in quality.

The second-seeded Kuznet-sova, another rising star in the apparently endless production line of Russian tennis women, earned her victory by dint of greater accuracy, stamina and higher self-belief. Though she perpetrated some outrageous mis-hits and sloppy errors, her aim was generally steady and true, and in the end too much for an opponent who was starting to run out of belief.

This was understandable, since Hantuchova's previous best performance this year had been a quarter-final spot in Tokyo in February and she has only ever won one tournament, Indian Wells two years ago. That was when she was the new ace in the women's game, before she was brought low last year by family problems, a failed love affair and a loss of weight so severe there were rumours of anorexia.

Now, having been reduced at one stage to just over seven stone, Hantuchova is a healthy, rounded 21-year-old of 5ft 11in, and the confidence she gained from having beaten the top seed, Amélie Mauresmo, in the semi-finals showed yesterday in what was her first final for 20 months.

In a white dress with matching visor, Hantuchova came out of the blocks more impressively and, managing to ignore a noisy gaggle of girls on a balcony overlooking the stadium, broke for a 2-1 lead with a forehand return which produced a triumphantly clenched fist.

Kuznetsova's great weight of shot did not prevent her suffering another break of serve which left her trailing 5-2 as Hantuchova drew her forward and then passed her imperiously before clinching the opening set in half an hour as the Russian teenager struck a forehand wide.

Having failed to convert two break-points in that first set, Kuznetsova missed three more in the second, though Hantuchova's excellent serving at those crisis moments had much to do with it.

One of those missed chances annoyed Kuznetsova so much that she unleashed a right-foot volley which propelled the ball over the net. Perhaps she was thinking of those previous three finals she has lost this year, in Dubai, Doha and Warsaw.

Another one looked on the cards as Hantuchova broke to lead 6-5 thanks to a weak Kuznetsova forehand into the net. Urged on by her British coach, Nigel Sears, the Slovakian stepped up to serve for the match, only to be undone by nerves, netting a backhand to go break-point down and then hammering a forehand into the tramlines.

Those nerves were still jangling in the tiebreak which followed and she conceded the first five points, one of her more pathetic efforts being a serve which struck the turf before it reached the net.

From that point it was clear there would only be one winner of this gripping contest as Kuznetsova's serve settled into a damaging rhythm and her forehand started to unleash a string of unreturnable shots. The Russian missed a break point in the opening game of the final set, but it never seemed likely to prove an expensive mistake. Hantuchova clung on until 4-4, at which point her inclination to direct more and more of her shots wide finally cost her a service game.

Now it was Kuznetsova's turn to serve for the match, and she found this just as difficult as Hantuchova had done earlier. Three times the Slovakian had a point to level the scores at 5-5, three times she could not close it out as Kuznetsova dug deep to serve hard and well.

When Svetlana finally moved to match point she needed no further invitation to claim the third title of her young career. Another deep, powerful serve was returned high into the air by Hantuchova and the Russian moved forward, waited for it to bounce and joyfully put it away. "If I play this well at Wimbledon I could beat anybody," said Kuznetsova, "though I can't say I will win it."

As an unseeded competitor, Hantuchova could also inflict damage. She said: "I have a good chance at Wimbledon if I play like this. This week showed me I can do it again. It will be hard work to get back to where I was, but I don't see any reason why I can't do it."

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