Monday, October 29, 2007

Breaking Out of the Comfort Zone

Daniela Hantuchova and Andy Murray had become quite comfortable in the state of California. Five years ago it was Hantuchova, a tall teen with penetrating strokes and subtle good looks, who made then No.1 Martina Hingis look like an amateur in capturing her first WTA Tour title at Indian Wells.

Then, in 2006, Murray announced his own arrival on the tennis scene in similar fashion, dismissing Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt on his way to his first ATP title at the SAP Open.

This past year, the two players each captured their sophomore titles. At first glance, their wins don't come off as anything peculiar – for Hantuchova and Murray are both established players in their own rights, briefly holding top 10 rankings and scoring the occasional win over a Grand Slam-winning champion. But their second titles were both captured in the exact spot where they had won their first – the Slovak triumphing at Indian Wells and the Scot in San Jose.

So this week, as Murray continued his comeback from an injury in St Petersburg and Hantuchova took to the courts in Linz with a crop of second-tier players, few expected either to be holding the winner's trophy at the end of the week. Murray had been focusing on consistency and Hantuchova – always a bit shaky on court – was making a mad dash to qualify for the season-ending championships in Madrid.

But with goals comes results, and on Sunday both won in straight sets, beating worthy opponents in the process. What was more surprising than their titles themselves was the fact that Murray and Hantuchova weren't in California at all – they were in Europe, playing on indoor courts in front of small-sized crowds of knowledgeable tennis fans.

So what does this mean for Murray and Hantuchova?

For Murray, it's a return to the form that not only brought him his '07 title in San Jose, but took him to an epic showdown at the Australian Open against Rafael Nadal. It gives him the confidence that once had Britain ringing with pride and hoping for a home-grown Wimbledon winner. Though Murray will certainly continue to face more hurdles, he has proved himself not once, not twice, but now three times.

By winning in Austria, Hantuchova reaps the immediate benefit of qualifying for Madrid. No doubt this was a goal of hers from the start of the year, and her tight-nerved win over Nicole Vaidisova and rather easy win against Patty Schnyder are certain to help her in the confidence department when she faces foes like Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in Spain.

Whether both of these players will continue such form in the new year is hard to say. I would argue, however, that the two have a little more tennis to play in 2007. Murray potentially faces Novak Djokovic in the third round in Paris, while Hantuchova will be up against the aforementioned queens of tennis in a few weeks.

If anything, the past week has shown both players that they have the ability to win somewhere else other than the state of California. And while winning is something tennis players love to do, knowing it can be done all over the globe must be mightily reassuring.

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