Davenport's major break point

Simon O'Hagan says the Americans may have a new heroine at this week's US Open
Click to follow
The Independent Online
This time last year the US Open was eagerly awaiting the Grand Slam comeback of Monica Seles, and when she went on to contest a memorable final with Steffi Graf, it looked as if these two once again were going to disappear over the horizon of the women's game while the lesser players competed among themselves.

It has not quite worked out like that, whatever evidence to the contrary may have been suggested in the three Grand Slams since. While Seles went on to win the Australian Open at the start of this year, and Graf, having missed Melbourne, was in a class of her own at the French Open and at Wimbledon, a hitherto unconsidered challenger has emerged for the 1996 US Open, which starts tomorrow at Flushing Meadow, New York.

Lindsay Davenport, the 6ft 2in powerhouse from California, is unquestionably the woman of the moment after a summer in which she followed her gold- medal winning performance at the Olympic Games by beating Graf on the way to the Acura Women's Classic title in Los Angeles a week ago. When Seles was asked last week who she thought could win the US Open besides herself and Graf, her answer was swift: "I definitely think Lindsay has a great chance. She's been playing unbelievably and is right up there."

That is quite an endorsement of a player who has never made it further than the quarter-finals in 17 Grand Slam appearances. But the way Davenport's game has come together over the past two months, and the self-belief she has started to acquire, means nobody who comes up against her over the next fortnight will do so without trepidation.

Her physique has always made Davenport look formidable. There has been no woman quite like her since the days of Betty Stove. But while booming groundstrokes came naturally to Davenport, mobility was a problem. Too often she was found out by players who were quicker or made better use of the court.

Towards the end of last year she worked hard on her fitness, lost weight, and the new Davenport announced herself by winning in Sydney in January. Progress remained fitful, though, until Atlanta, when the biggest win of her life in what amounted to the fifth Grand Slam - only Graf among leading players was absent - left her with the feeling that she could beat anyone. Her subsequent straight-sets defeat of Graf confirmed that.

"Lindsay won't ever move like Steffi," says Lynn Rolley, the director of women's coaching at the United States Tennis Association and happy to describe herself as Davenport's mentor. "But she is good enough. She has got excellent balance, she's a wonderful striker of the ball, and she's learnt when to go to the net and when to stay back. She's relentless from the baseline. Because she's so tall, it's very difficult for opponents to get the ball high enough off the ground to push her out of position."

Davenport, now 20 and ranked seven in the world, first came under Rolley's wing when she was 12. She was beating out of sight everyone her own age, but unlike other gifted youngsters was in no hurry to make it into the professional ranks. "She wanted to keep proving herself against her peers," Rolley says. "In some ways playing girls much older than yourself takes the pressure off. You're not expected to win. Lindsay was never prepared to bluff her way through."

By choosing to remain at school until she was 18, Davenport bucked another trend. "She was not physically ready for the pro tour," Rolley says. "And she always had other things she wanted to do. As a result, her career progressed in small steps, so people haven't noticed her so much. But she's a very smart girl." The obvious contrast is with Jennifer Capriati, and the fact it was Capriati's title that Davenport inherited at the Olympics underlined how different their approaches have been.

For Davenport to mount a sustained assault on the upper reaches of the women's game, it is vital that she stays fit, says Rolley. Recovery from injury and maintaining physical condition are much harder when you are as big as Davenport. But at the moment the force is with her, and if she can get past Conchita Martinez, her projected quarter-final opponent, she could give an out-of-sorts Seles a tough time in the semi-finals. In the other half of the draw, the main obstacles are Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Jana Novotna.

The prospect of two first-time champions at the US Open has increased with the arrival on the men's scene of Richard Krajicek, the newly crowned Wimbledon champion. Certainly, Pete Sampras, beaten by the Dutchman in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, would not relish meeting him again, as he is scheduled to in the semi-finals.

Having lost his Wimbledon crown, Sampras will be desperate for the same thing not to happen at the US Open - the only Grand Slam title he still holds. If ever a player needed a high note on which to end a year of sadness and disappointment, it is Sampras.