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Diane Pucin

Harkleroad Looks Like a Rising Star

May 29, 2003|Diane Pucin

PARIS — Ashley Harkleroad sat at the changeover, tears clouding her eyes. Having led, 5-1, in the third set of her second-round French Open match against ninth-seeded Daniela Hantuchova, she was down, 6-5. Hantuchova was about to serve for the match, for the match that should have belonged to Harkleroad.

The tears, though, were not girlish weeping for something lost. The tears were fighting tears, emotions of an 18-year-old who refused to lose.

So Harkleroad didn't. She upset Hantuchova, 7-6 (2), 4-6, 9-7. She was among five U.S. women to win second-round matches Wednesday.

You may remember Harkleroad from the 2001 U.S. Open. She was 16 and wearing a cropped top and tiny shorts. She had long, tan legs and a long, blond ponytail. She was made to be the United States' own Anna Kournikova, a young beauty with beastly hard ground strokes and a front-and-center sexuality that seemed both dangerous and alluring.

For the last two years, until her 18th birthday in May, Harkleroad had been hamstrung by the WTA's age rules, which limited the number of tournaments she could play.

Free from age jail, Harkleroad has been "just so happy and improving every day," said Laura Granville. Granville, 22 and seeded 31st, also won Wednesday. She beat 1997 French Open champion Iva Majoli, 6-1, 6-2. In the third round, Granville will play eighth-seeded Chanda Rubin, an American. Rubin beat Cara Black, 7-6 (6), 6-3.

While U.S. men's tennis clings to the clay-spattered shirt of elder statesman Andre Agassi because Pete Sampras has gone away, Michael Chang is going away, Jim Courier is gone and no one is ready to replace them, the women are tripping over each other on the climb to the top 10.

Serena Williams, with the jeweled strap on her tennis dress and her red, white and blue butterfly diamond hair clips, speaks airily of her dreams of clothing designs and Grand Slam dominance and has staked out a No. 1 ranking for the foreseeable future. Venus, her older sister, has become a mysterious, insular, intriguing ghost who pops between tennis and her design business, who seems conflicted about whether she wants to fight little sister for top billing or move on.

And Venus is the third-best player in the world, says the computer.

Jennifer Capriati is still grimly determined to beat Serena and Venus. Lindsay Davenport has sparkling eyes and a Hawaiian tan. She is just back from her honeymoon and still has one of the purest, hardest strokes in the game. And, at 26, still convinced she has it in her to win a fourth Grand Slam title.

So those are the leaders.

Harkleroad is a chaser.

She has chopped off the pony tail. She and Hantuchova were dressed in identical powder blue Nike dresses, shoes and socks. When Hantuchova, 20, made a quick climb into the top 10 last year, she was featured in photo shoots and asked continually about replacing Kournikova as the glamour face of tennis.

If Harkleroad is to be in the same place, she said she doesn't mind. "A lot of people compared me to Kournikova," Harkleroad said. "That was just a compliment for me. She's a very sweet girl. She's very, very pretty."

But the way Harkleroad righted herself, mentally and physically, after losing her nerves and her strokes in the third set, makes it seem possible she is much more a player than Kournikova.

Harkleroad, who is from Georgia and who travels with her dad, Danny, has a new coach, Jay Berger, from the United States Tennis Assn. program. Berger was a pro who reached the fourth rounds of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before retiring in 1991. Berger considers Harkleroad's "incredible competitiveness" and her "tremendous backhand and great forehand" as reasons to think she will quickly rise in the rankings.

Today, Venus Williams, Davenport, Capriati, Marissa Irvin and Corina Morariu will try to make it another five-win day for American women.

Granville said her group -- she and Harkleroad, Irvin, Ansley Cargill, Samantha Reeves, Sarah Taylor -- see the Williams sisters, Capriati, Davenport and Rubin as role models and women on a different level.

"What they've already accomplished is amazing," Granville said. "But we hardly ever talk to them. They all have their own circles."

The circles are getting closer, though. If U.S. tennis television ratings and interest are tied to U.S. players doing well, the women have it covered while the men are disappearing.

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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