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."