Posted: Thursday, May 29th 2003 at 6:05am
Georgian Harkleroad pulls upset at French Open
PARIS - Rattled by the stress of a French Open marathon, American Ashley Harkleroad settled her nerves, choked back tears and earned a milestone victory.
The 18-year-old Georgia native advanced to the third round of a Grand Slam event for the first time Wednesday, beating No. 9-seeded Daniela Hantuchova 7-6 (2), 4-6, 9-7.
Harkleroad won despite blowing a 5-1 lead in the third set and losing five consecutive games. The letdown left her on the verge of defeat, and her eyes glistened with emotion.
``I was so tight and wanting it so bad, I guess,'' she said. ``I said, `OK, Ashley, you're not going to lose this. You're going to fight.' I tried to breathe and relax.''
She did, and after three hours, eight minutes of tennis, Harkleroad earned the first match point. When Hantuchova sailed her final shot wide, Harkleroad squealed, dropped her racket and sprinted to the stands for a celebratory hug from her agent.
Harkleroad also beat Hantuchova at Charleston, S.C., in April, but this win came on a much bigger stage. Hantuchova, who had reached the quarterfinals in the last three major events, contributed to her defeat with 106 unforced errors.
``Sometimes I was going too much for it and doing too many mistakes,'' Hantuchova said. ``In the end, it was just a couple of points that decided the match.''
She was exactly right: The slender Slovakian won 131 points, Harkleroad 133.
Harkleroad, a runner-up in the juniors at Roland Garros last year, is ranked 52nd tops among U.S. teenagers. She has drawn comparisons to Anna Kournikova, and her matchup with the equally photogenic Hantuchova attracted a crowd of cheering youngsters who made Court 1 sound like a schoolyard playground.
The two blond opponents appeared almost identical because they wore matching powder-blue outfits to their dismay.
``It's a nice color,'' Hantuchova said with a rueful smile. ``But I don't think it's good when both of us are wearing the same thing.''
Despite some sloppy shotmaking, the match was filled with entertaining, scrambling exchanges. Through a series of momentum swings, Harkleroad showed impressive persistence.
``I've always been very feisty and a fighter,'' she said. ``I don't know where it came from. It's just me.''
Harkleroad began rushing her shots in the third set to fall behind 6-5. She recovered with help from the erratic Hantuchova, who committed eight unforced errors to lose eight of the next nine points.
Harkleroad held serve for an 8-7 lead, and errors by Hantuchova on the final three points gave the American the victory.
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