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Daniela Hantuchova

Any tennis player will tell you that drawing a qualifier in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament can be both a blessing and a curse. Whatever their age and stage in the game, qualifiers are imbued with the confidence of having won three matches on the trot, their match play already a well-oiled machine that can disrupt the momentum of even the best players.

So for Daniela Hantuchova, competing in her 14th Australian Open, drawing qualifier Heather Watson, the plucky Brit from Guernsey, was a challenge she was right to be wary of.

Hantuchova, a semifinalist here in 2008, has played her way back into title-winning contention of late, winning the tournament on grass in Birmingham last year, and reaching the US Open quarterfinals a few months later. Her clean, aggressive shotmaking is among some of the most enjoyable to watch on the WTA, and, if she can gather pace and purpose, she can be tough to stay with.

But Watson is the archetypal battler, a player who thrives on gritting in and clinging on, and although Hantuchova broke early to lead 4-2 in the first set, Watson chipped and chugged and clawed her way back.

Admittedly, it delayed the inevitable, Hantuchova breaking again, and taking the first set 7-5 just four minutes shy of the hour mark.

If losing such a tight set dented her confidence, the Brit didn't show it, and, to the delight of the crowd, the 21-year-old came out swinging again in the second set. Rewarded with a break in the sixth game as Hantuchova's level dipped somewhat, she then gave back her serve immediately, only to break again, to love this time. Serving out the set to send the match into a decider, fist-pumping as she did so, Watson seemed capable of being exactly the banana skin Hantuchova had been afraid of.

But experience counts for a great deal in these situations, and, as Hantuchova settled into her stride, perhaps the exertions of the first two sets, and her three previous matches, finally caught up with the qualifier.

"The bottom line is still the same though - it's about surviving the first few rounds. Nobody plays well in every match and that is one of the things that you learn with time on the tour - that it's not about playing perfectly, it's about winning matches and getting to the next one," Hantuchova wrote in her column for The Age yesterday. And that's exactly what she did.

Returning from a bathroom break, she held to love, pushed Watson hard on serve, and, linking winners seamlessly, broke to lead 4-1. The Brit battled back again, producing some winners of her own to break back. But, again, Hantuchova applied the pressure, producing another break of serve, and serving out the match 7-5, 3-6, 6-3.

The difference was in execution, at times, Hantuchova's knowledge and experience of the game getting her over the line. She will need to improve on her break point conversion however, winning just five of 13 break points. Her next opponent, the former junior champion Karolina Pliskova, a highly-touted prospect, might be less forgiving.

If she gets through that one, it might be Serena Williams in the third round. Quite a prospect.  

Show Court 2 - Women's Singles - Round 1
H.Watson GBR 
D.Hantuchova SVK (31)

Monday, 22 December 2014
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