Called by one observer "the most naturally gifted women's player since Evonne Goolagong," Czechoslovakia's 19-year-old Hana Mandlikova is a refreshing change from the game's metronomic baseliners. She smacks running forehands, soft-touches drop shots, and holds back nothing on second serves. Her genius with a racket seemingly knows no bounds, as those who have witnessed her rise to the No. 5 world ranking would attest.
Just last weekend she defeated Bettina Bunge to win a $100,000 Houston tournament. The victory, however, was not an easy one, and two weeks earlier she lost a final to unseeded Leslie Allen.
Though Hana's play is still rather unpredictable, she sees her game improving. "I think I'm much better than a year ago; I'm better in the head," she says, using her still limited English. "Before I just strike the ball and look at how nicely it hit the line. I knew I was missing something, two things, patience and concentration."
Goolagong has also been noted for her "walkabouts," or lapses of court concentration. Perhaps it is the nature of the artist in both players.
Exquisite shots, though, can carry one only so far against today's human backboards. Hana sensed she needed more consistency and asked veteran Betty Stove to become her coach.
"I knew she was traveling about 20 years playing tennis and was very smart and very nice," Mandlikova said.
Eventually, Hana has said, she would like to buy a home in Florida, presumably to serve as an American base of operation. But unlike Martina Navratilova, the Czech who defected to the United States six years ago, she still calls Prague home. It's there she learned the serve-and-volley game that Navratilova honed at the selfsame sports club.
Stove has helped Mandlikova ease into a life style unlike the one she knew training back home. Her dutch confidante has developed an international network of friends, and these come in handy as the pair travels the globe.
"Hotel rooms can make you go crazy, but because of Betty's friends we stay with families," Hana explains. "It helps to get away from tennis and do something else, to see the kids come in from school or try a little cooking."
"Last week the family we stayed with wanted Czech food and kept teasing me about making dumplings. I told them, 'I can't make; I don't know how to cook,'" she related sheepishly.
Of course, courts, not kitchens, have always been her natural habitat. Her father, Vilem Mandlik, a sports writer for the Czech Army newspaper and a former Olympic sprinter, had her volleying off the dining room wall at a tender age. By 10 she was enrolled in tennis school, and by 15 she had stamped herself as one of world's top junior players. That signal came through loud and clear during her first US trip, when she demolished the field at the 1977 junior Orange Bowl tournament. (A red bandana once worn at this event has become her trademark.)
The next year she secured the No. 72 world ranking and was voted the International Tennis Federation's junior champion. The upward climb continued in 1979 with five titles, albeit obscure ones, in such events as the New South Wales Open and Toyota Classic in Melbourne.
She crashed the elite ranks last year by reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon, the semifinals at the French and Italian Opens, and the final of the US Open. She also won her first major tournament, the Australian Open over Wendy Turnbull, and finished first in the year-long bonus points race. As brilliant as Hana was, though, the top stars were often able to "turn on" the concentration and beat her in close matches.
At Wimbledon, she led Goolagong, the eventual champion, 7-6, 3-1, 40-15. And in four other major championships she lost three-setters to Chris Evert Lloyd, including the US Open final after a strong start.
If she was looking for a sympathizer, she had one in Stove, who in 1977 lost three Wimbledon finals -- in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. "But I tried my best," Betty reflects today, satisfied with her effort if disappointed with the results.
Tapping into this kind of maturity should help Mandlikova find her own way in pro tennis. Conversely, having a protege has given Stove a new reason to remain on the circuit as her own game produces diminishing returns.
"The thing with Hana is that I can still play the major tour," says the former three- term president of the Women's Tennis Association, the players' union. "If I were coaching a lesser player, I'd have to quit playing at the top level and skip around to lesser tournaments."
Mandlikova and Stove are rather like law firm partners. They share ideas on match strategy, whether playing singles or teaming up in doubles. Stove, however, holds the unwritten title of senior member.
"To merge two lives, rules have been made," she says, "but I don't take Hana by the hand. A person has to have self- discipline."
Their friendship has helped Mandlikova combat the loneliness felt by any young player near the top, especially one on foreign soil. Even so, opportunities to use her native tongue are generally limited to a weekly phone call home. Stove speaks six languages, but not Czech, so she and Hana converse in English.
Mandlikova's ability to field post-match questions has improved with time. She saves her best talking, though, for the court, where her racket does the work. American audiences have been particularly responsive to her crowd-pleasing style, which attracts even her fellow players.
The admiration is mutual, Hana claims -- "I like American people very well because they show what they feel, so I show them nice tennis."