Hana Mandlikova's greeting to a stranger is a quick nod and an expression that says, "Hi. I'm stern." Her handshake is so firm that one can feel the callus between her thumb and forefinger. But soon she is asking if wearing a mink coat to a Broadway play that night will be excessive. "It is too much, don't you think?" she asks, modeling the mink over her warmup suit. "It's not me."
Actually, this 5'8", 130-pound native of Czechoslovakia looks good in almost anything. None other than Ginger Rogers took one look at her at Wimbledon in 1981 and said, "She has the most beautiful legs I have ever seen." Although Mandlikova ends up wearing the mink—"very heavy" was her comment later—she is highly suspicious of adornment and affectation. She wears dresses so infrequently that she still hasn't learned to sit with her legs crossed just so.
Mandlikova's tennis game, however, is all grace. It has earned her comparisons to the most fluid players of all time—Bueno and Goolagong, for example—the No. 3 ranking in the world and, at age 23, nearly $2 million in prize money. She may tramp around the court between points wearing her lank hair in a headband and her guileless features in a frown, but when she coils for the start of her topspin backhand, it is as pure a moment as the game has to offer.
"I am very simple," she says. "People sometimes make me a very complicated person. I see things always in black and white, true or false. Maybe too much. I am learning the gray."
It has become an expensive lesson. Mandlikova's blunt nature and rigid demeanor have given her a reputation for arrogance and ungraciousness that has only recently begun to improve. According to one former player, "She has been spoiled from the word go. She's never had to do anything on her own. As a result, she has little respect for other people unless she really likes them. She has to grow up and learn that other girls are reasonable players, too."
After Pam Shriver beat Mandlikova last year, Hana allowed that Shriver didn't deserve her No. 3 world ranking. Says Shriver today, "We all say stupid things, but Hana has gotten personal in public a few times. She's a person who says exactly what she thinks, but it's not always appropriate."
At the 1983 French Open, after Chris Evert Lloyd beat her in the quarterfinals, Mandlikova told the press, "I think I am a much better player than Chris. If I'm in good shape, I beat her two-and-two." At the time, Evert Lloyd's clay-court record was a mere 316-7.
And consider last year's Wimbledon, where Mandlikova projected herself into the final against Martina Navratilova, without even mentioning that to get there she would have to beat Evert Lloyd. Never mind that she had lost 10 straight matches to Evert Lloyd. As for Navratilova, Mandlikova declared, "When I'm at my best form I'm better than she is." Mandlikova never got a chance to prove it, because a highly motivated Evert Lloyd routed her 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals. Convinced that Evert Lloyd was intentionally taking a long time at courtside to savor the victory, "to give me one more kick after she beat me," Mandlikova left Centre Court without waiting for her. Worse, Mandlikova performed only the slightest curtsy as she passed Princess Diana in the royal box. HORRIBLE HANA screamed one English tabloid.
Angered by Mandlikova's behavior, Navratilova chose the occasion to say she was glad Evert Lloyd had won. "There will be no love lost for Hana by the other players," said Navratilova. "Hana has no respect for anyone, and she needs to start showing some."
Eventually even Mandlikova could see that speaking in such black-and-white terms had been a mistake. It took her two months, but she apologized to Navratilova in the locker room at the U.S. Open. "It was very hard," she says. "I said it quietly, in Czech. I have the pride. But I started the war with Martina, and it was very dumb of me. I sometimes do things without thinking. It was just that I knew I could beat her."
Indeed, Mandlikova tends to give Navratilova more trouble than anyone else. Mandlikova has won five of their 19 matches. Her most recent victory came in March at the U.S. Indoors, where Mandlikova prevailed 7-6, 6-0 and won her mink coat. Navratilova had not lost a love set since 1982. In their next meeting, at the Virginia Slims Championships in New York two weeks later, a pumped-up Navratilova won 7-6, 7-5. For sheer shotmaking, that match surpassed any in recent memory in women's tennis.
Mandlikova says she has made amends to Evert Lloyd. Nonetheless, she still feels that Evert Lloyd denigrates her abilities. Three months ago, Mandlikova beat Evert Lloyd in Oakland, but the win didn't bring Mandlikova the praise she wanted. "We've seen this tennis from her before," said Evert Lloyd. "She's not consistent. We'll see, because, as I say, she hasn't really done anything."
Mandlikova's voice rises when she recalls those words. "What bothers me about Evert," she says, "is that she doesn't appreciate anybody, never, ever, unless she knows they cannot beat her. Then she says all nice things. She knows I was better that day, but she would not say it. I respect very much that Evert is a hard worker and the toughest mentally on the circuit. But I think, there is something she is missing."
To Mandlikova's mind, candor is a quality generally missing in America. "Some people in this country, they talk to you nice and they are polite and they want you to say you like them," she says. "But I am not that way. If I am down, I am down. I just cannot cover. And that's what people want, especially in America. I think Martina learned that very well. Inside, she is the same personality that she was, but she can really cover herself now. But she loves America. She is American."
Even after five years of spending most of her time in this country, Mandlikova, a Czech citizen, is still very much the child of her father, Vilem Mandlik of Prague. Eleven times Mandlik was national sprint champion in Czechoslovakia (his best times were 10.2 in the 100 meters and 20.4 in the 200), and he represented his country in the '56 and '60 Olympics. Today he is a writer for a Czech automobile magazine. At 50, Mandlik has a pulse rate (53) that's only slightly higher than his age.
His resemblance to his daughter is marked: He has the same closely set features, a serious bearing and, Ginger Rogers may like to know, great legs. "When Hana does things that sometimes I don't like, I can't get angry," Mandlik says, "because I would do the same thing. It's very difficult. We are the same."
Mandlik saw very early that his daughter had "good legs, good movements" and set out to develop a "sports child." Wary of anabolic steroids, he decided against track. He chose tennis, a game he didn't play. By the time Hana was 8½, Mandlik had made a paddle for her out of wood. He bears a scar on his thumb from the project. He also drew a circle for her on the living room wall of the family home. When her mother, also named Hana, was out of the house, young Hana would move the furniture and hit a tennis ball into the circle.
Mandlik's connections in the Czech sports world helped get Hana the best coaches. But, she says, "My father didn't push. Once he got me started, it was me that wanted success very badly."
Sports quickly became her passion. She was always the fastest girl in school. She used to join her older brother, Vilda, in games of soccer, hockey, or whatever was in season. "I was hard to get rid of," she says. Today, sports—particularly skiing, golf and swimming—are still her favorite activities when she isn't playing tennis. And she still likes hanging around the guys. "I enjoy more the tournaments with men and women," she says. "I enjoy talking to Tim Mayotte, John [McEnroe] and Jimmy [Connors]. The "men know how to relax better. The girls take their feelings off the court too much."
Mandlikova says that she was never much for the strict Czech school system. Knowing her heart was not into school, her father would sometimes take her to work with him, although her mother didn't know it. She remembers defying teachers in class. "The other kids were always afraid of them, but I never was," she says. "When I thought the teachers were not fair, I just told them. The other kids thought I was crazy."
Mandlikova admits she was spoiled as a youngster. "I was very lucky to have my father and certain teachers who would let me practice," she says. "I was spoiled, but in a good way, I think. But I know in some ways it makes me young for my age."
Her tennis, however, showed an early maturity—an aggressive, serve-and-volley style with plenty of variety. "I've always liked changes, and the beautiful shot," she says. "Sometimes too much." Navratilova recalls that when she was the best junior player in Prague, the talent of the 10-year-old Mandlikova was obvious. "I have never been surprised by any of Hana's success," says Martina. "If anything, she's probably been hindered by getting the 'unlimited potential' tag. I went through that, and it's a lot of extra pressure."
Eventually, Mandlikova played in matches outside Czechoslovakia. By the time she was 16, she was the best junior player in the world, and though she spoke almost no English, she was spending weeks at a time playing tournaments in the U.S. Many of her early off-court memories of America are not pleasant. She recalls paying a taxi driver in San Antonio $50 for a ride from the airport to a hotel. She didn't understand she had been taken until the ride back cost her only $8. "I was very lonely," she says. "My phone bill was hundreds of dollars a month, and we had little money then."
Mandlikova began to fulfill her promise in 1980 when, as an 18-year-old, she won the Australian Open and upset Navratilova at Wimbledon. The next year she defeated Evert Lloyd to win the French Open, knocked off Navratilova at Wimbledon and rose to No. 4 in the world. She injured her back at the end of 1981 and stayed off the tour for the first 2½ months of 1982. When she came back, she exhibited a disturbing tendency to beat herself with erratic play. By late 1983, she was suffering from tennis ennui, losing in shocking capitulations to no-names like Catrin Jexell, Elizabeth Smylie and Sharon Walsh, and her ranking fell to 12th.
In January 1984, Mandlikova won her first tournament in 2½ years, and a few weeks later she stopped Navratilova's 54-match winning streak. Mandlikova had won five tournaments by April, but failed to win another for the rest of the year. The Mandlikova of 1985, however, has won two tournaments, has beaten both Navratilova and Evert Lloyd, and seems to be maintaining her concentration better than ever as the Grand Slam events approach. Still, the unlimited potential tag continues to overshadow her accomplishments.
"Magnificent talents blown by capricious winds," says Ted Tinling. "Hana has quicker reflexes than anyone else, marvelous physical movements. There's no doubt that if she can manage to get some mental consistency, she can be the best player in the business. She is the heiress apparent, waiting. But only apparent, not more."
Since 1980, Mandlikova has been coached by Betty Stove, a Wimbledon finalist in 1977. Nicknamed "Duchess" for her regal bearing, Stove played the tour for nearly 20 years and knows the pitfalls of the circuit. She also speaks six languages, though Czech is not among them. Stove speaks German to Mandlik and English to Hana, which has accelerated Hana's grasp of the language.
When asked what her greatest contribution to Mandlikova has been, Stove says, "Peace." Says Mandlikova, "Betty is so calm. I need this because I am not." When she gets a bad call or misses an easy shot, more and more Mandlikova looks to Stove and smiles rather than show the anger that can cause her game to unravel.
Stove's biggest test came during Mandlikova's prolonged slump in 1982 and '83. The experience often strained their relationship, but with Stove's guidance, Mandlikova came to understand that her own intense drive and the expectations of others can be her biggest enemies. "Hana would get very nonchalant against inferior players as a way of escaping the pressure," says Stove. "Then she would lose, and things would get worse."
To combat the psychic toll, Stove and Mandlikova have devised a schedule that allows long periods of rest. Last year Mandlikova played only three times after Carling Bassett upset her at the U.S. Open in September. She spent most of the rest of the year skiing in Europe and working on her game.
Mandlikova's resultant zest is obvious in her spirited practice sessions with Stove and hitting partner Frits Don, a journeyman Dutch touring pro. "C'mon, Fritzie baby," she exhorted across the court during a recent workout. "You must play your best to beat me." The competition often extends to an improvised game combining soccer and tennis, in which Mandlikova's footwork usually outdoes Don's. "Hanki's real talent comes when she is having fun," says Don. "And she is learning how to have that attitude in tournaments." At a Chinese restaurant after another recent practice, Mandlikova's fortune cookie contained the message, "Keeping your irritability under control will be smart." She put the note in her pocket.
"I understand people see so much talent with me, but right now I don't care," Mandlikova says with the fervor of new discovery. "I understand that they want me to be No. 1. But they always put the pressure on me since I join the circuit. Whatever they say, I don't care. That is what Betty learned to me. To be myself.
"I have won 23 tournaments. I won the French, the Australian. I was Wimbledon finalist, twice finalist in the U.S. Open. So if I quit now I would be happy with my career. If I do not make the No. 1 spot, I will not. So what? I know I am doing my best. My father sees the pressures in America. He sees that it is not so easy to be a top player. So he tells me right now to just try your best. And don't worry, tennis is not everything."
Nonetheless, the circuit doesn't leave much room for anything else. Mandlikova has bittersweet memories of a wealthy Englishman she met in 1981 and saw on a regular basis for three years. "When he wanted to get me mad he called me Brezhie, after Brezhnev," she says with a laugh. "He wanted to get married. I didn't feel ready. So he married someone else. It was very hard, but I had to choose tennis."
By the time she is 30, Mandlikova expects to be married and have children, although she doubts her husband will be Czechoslovakian. "It would be very difficult to find a man in Czechoslovakia," she says, "because I would always feel that he married me for money." Despite the $1 million or so a year she pulls down in endorsements and prize money, her only real luxuries are a two-bedroom condo in Florida at Boca West, a gold Rolex watch and a villa in Prague in which her parents live.
Mandlikova avoids friendships on the tour, following Stove's tenet that "there is no love in tennis—only 40-love." Once every couple of months, Mandlikova will find a way to see her family, usually by flying to Prague or by bringing her relatives to Florida. She is particularly delighted when she can spend time with her two nephews, ages six and four.
In more private moments, Mandlikova makes entries in a journal. Slowly but surely she is learning to cook, although she joked about one of her recent efforts at goulash: "We'll see how many get sick." Her newfound good nature is being noticed.
"Hana is acting much friendlier," says Shriver. "A lot of it is just being more comfortable with English, but I also think she is a lot happier. Of course, I have mixed emotions about it. If she gets her act together, then we may as well worry about who's going to come in second, third and fourth."
Mandlikova hopes that perception is accurate. "I think Martina and Evert, they know anytime I play them, I can beat them," she says with typical bluntness. "I think they are always afraid of me...no, not afraid...maybe worried of me." She laughs. "As I said, I am learning the gray."