Daniela Hantuchova loses the skirt

Professional tennis player, ranked No. 29 (as of June 25)

Updated: July 11, 2012, 9:48 AM ET
By Morty Ain | Photographs: Jeff Lipsky

tkJeff Lipsky for ESPN The MagazineDaniela Hantuchova was the first Slovak woman to ever be ranked in the top 5 in 2003.

This is an extended interview from the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to the Mag today!

Why did you decide to pose for the Body Issue?
DH: I'm always open to new opportunities, so I figured why not? I wanted to do it with class and not show too much of anything, but as an athlete, I'm pretty confident about my body, so I guess I'm not afraid of anything.

How were you introduced to tennis?
DH: I saw tennis on TV for the first time when I was 5 years old [in what is now Slovakia], during the 1988 Olympics, and I asked my parents to buy me a tennis racket so that one day I could make it to the Olympics. I remember watching Miloslav Mecir from Czechoslovakia. He won the gold medal in singles, and that was the big inspiring moment for me. He's the reason I started to play.

What about the sport did you fall in love with?
DH: It's the most beautiful sport in the world. You can play it all your life. It's a very social sport, you get to meet wonderful people, you don't have to be a professional to enjoy the game and it's very classy. I love it as a competitor because it is individual, so everything is up to you. If you play well you win, and if you do badly it's all in your hands. It's physical, but it's also like a chess game: You have to use your head and try to move your opponent around the court. That's the fun part.

What do you like about your body?
DH: I know I can trust it and I know I can make it work really hard, and so far it has held up pretty well. I know I'm very strong; I can do a lot of endurance work and my body never lets me down. My legs are my best part. Most of that is my genes, so I have to thank my parents. My mother has wonderful legs -- more beautiful than mine, I think -- and my dad was pretty tall.

I learned early that the talent to want to work hard is much more important than the talent for the game.

What challenges do you face with your body?
DH: In my sport, I'm not the most physical girl out there. I can work really hard lifting weights, and I do, but it just doesn't show that much. But I don't mind because you can succeed with other things. I'm really lucky that I can eat pretty much anything and I don't know where it goes. I burn a lot because I work so much on the court, but I don't watch calories. I like sweets, so I have to be careful before matches and eat healthy. But once a tournament is finished, I don't care.

Describe your toughest day of training.
DH: During the offseason, when we have more time, I do a lot of intervals on the treadmill. Normally we do intervals and cardio one day and weights the other. I don't really have a day off, so I put in two to three hours of gym work a day, plus time on the court. I also love running, especially by the ocean when the weather is beautiful. There's just nothing better than that. You don't need to run long distances for tennis, so it's intervals there too. We'll go really hard for 30 to 45 seconds, then rest a few seconds and do that for a few sets.

What is the most difficult thing you put your body through?
DH: Stairs. Running stairs just kills you, not only your heart rate but also your legs. You just burn so much that you feel like you can't even move anymore. I'd do it for two-minute intervals without stopping, and my heart was racing. When I looked up I felt like there was no way I was ever going to make it, so I just had to look at the stairs. I think that was the toughest thing I've done.

What exercise or training can you not live without?
DH: Running. I just love nature and feeling free and being alone and getting my mind away from everything. It would be tough if I could not do that. But another thing I could never live without is skiing. I've done that since I was 3 years old and I will try to forever -- again because it gives me that sense of freedom.

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
DH: Absolutely not. I think I was so focused on tennis and trying to win, as well as school and piano, that there was never really time to think about that.

How has your body changed throughout your career?
DH: After 13 years on the tour, the injuries come around more often, which is unfortunate. It took me a long time to accept that my body isn't how it used to be. I feel my 24 years of playing much more than I did a couple of years ago. I have to take more time for recovery, but at the same time I've really been lucky with injuries. Throughout my whole career I've tried to take care of every part of my body and make sure everything stays healthy.

What do you tell yourself when you feel you can't train anymore?
DH: I always know I can push myself more. Over the years, I've learned to trust my body and I know I can push it really hard. Our bodies are stronger than we give them credit for. Every time I finish a workout, even if I feel totally exhausted, I know I could have done more. But at a certain point, it's no longer beneficial. It's very important, especially the longer you play a sport, to know when it's time to stop. Early in my career I didn't know that, and I kept pushing myself. Now I realize it's much more important to be healthy. Now I quit before I come close to hurting myself or doing something stupid.

I can eat like crazy. I can't tell you how many jars of Nutella I go through. It's embarrassing.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
DH: "Talent is one step away from being lazy." I read that when I was about 12 years old and I told myself I was not going to let that happen to me. I learned early that the talent to want to work hard is much more important than the talent for the game. It's about being a professional every single day and giving my best. That's all I can ask of myself.

You've been described as a perfectionist. Is that accurate?
DH: In my early days, I wanted to do everything perfectly. I always had the best grades and I played piano for eight years. I'm very proud of those things and the way my parents brought me up because I always tried to do my best. But as a tennis player, you grow up very quickly because you have to be independent and travel around the world and meet different people. After a few years of that, I learned perfection doesn't exist -- on the tour or in real life. Nothing can be perfect; it's just impossible. I became more relaxed and much calmer once I realized that it's okay to not be perfect and it's okay to make mistakes. Now I enjoy everything more and appreciate the little things in life. I learned to be happy with who I am and what I've got. I especially appreciate my health and how lucky I am to be able to play without pain. Winning or losing, I'm lucky to do what I love doing. I couldn't ask for more than that.

What about your body would surprise us?
DH: I can eat like crazy and it doesn't show up. I eat a lot of sweets. Nutella on anything -- I have a weakness for that. I can't tell you how many jars of Nutella I go through. It's embarrassing. Sometimes I just eat it on its own. I also love ice cream, especially Haagen-Dazs. I love tiramisu and croissants. And, oh gosh, anything my mom bakes. Another thing that might surprise you is how much I can lift. It doesn't show up on me, but I love doing squats and lunges and I can handle a lot of weight. I can squat 150-175 pounds, and I can do lunges with 30-35 pounds in each hand. It's fun.

What was your best athletic moment -- a time when everything clicked and you felt completely in tune with your body?
DH: When I won at Indian Wells in 2002 and 2007, I felt like everything clicked and it was the moment I worked for. Everything just became automatic. I was out there enjoying myself and not really thinking about anything. It was an amazing feeling I know I'll never forget.

What do you want people to know about you?
DH: That I'm a very active girl. I love playing golf. I get that same feeling of being around nature and feeling free. I'm very interested in history. I love visiting old cities like Rome and Paris and learning about what happened before we were here. I feel really lucky to get to visit so many places around the world because of tennis, and wherever I travel I try to learn about the history and the culture. Every time I leave, I take a piece of the place with me so that I never forget it.

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