Tennis: Davenport cuts Fernandez down to size: Californian teenager set for a big future after reaching the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time

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The Independent Online
AT 6ft 2in, Lindsay Davenport will be able to look down on Steffi Graf while looking up to the world No 1 when they meet in the quarter- finals of the Australian Open; respectful, but determined not to be overawed.

The 17-year-old Californian resembles an over-fed Helena Sukova, but it is not only Davenport's size that makes her a rarity. Here we have a happy, seemingly well-adjusted tennis prodigy.

A panel of specialists about to address the subject of age eligibility for the women's tour would be advised to interview her at the first opportunity as a comparatively late developer free of parental pressure.

Davenport advanced to a place in last eight of a Grand Slam championship for the first time with a

6-2, 6-7, 6-2 win against Mary Joe Fernandez, who was runner-up to Graf here in 1990 and to Monica Seles in 1992, and who took Graf to three sets in the final of last year's French Open.

'She's leading the pack of the younger girls right now,' Fernandez said, without needing to add that the blossoming of Davenport had coincided with the wilting of Jennifer Capriati, her senior by only three months.

The disaffected Capriati, who joined the tour a fortnight before her 14th birthday, has returned to high school in Florida seeking normality. Davenport intends to be in California for her graduation on Wednesday 15 June before leaving to compete at Wimbledon, which starts the following Monday.

'I turned pro when I was 16 and I have only been doing it for a year,' Davenport said, 'so maybe in two years I won't be smiling. No, that was a joke. I enjoy the tour and try to make it fun for myself.

'I think that the people around me are very different than the people she (Capriati) had around her. Everyone who is close to me, and around me, tries to make it fun. It just seems that with some of the people that were close to her, it wasn't always their main concern maybe.

'My parents never said, 'You're playing pro tennis'. They always wanted me to go to college on a scholarship. My parents are not out there throwing balls at me and serving at me.'

While it was impressive for Davenport, seeded No 16, to eliminate the No 6, she cannot expect to be allowed the chances against Graf which she failed to put away against Fernandez: four match points in the second set before losing the tie- break.

None the less, Davenport finished the stronger. 'She was probably a little upset,' Fernandez said, 'so she started hitting harder. You have to take her out of her striking zone. If she's standing there, she's going to tee off and you're in trouble. So you have to make her move. She's stronger than Steffi is, but I think Steffi moves better. I wouldn't say shot for shot Steffi hits it harder, but she is definitely a better athlete.'

It is difficult to erase the smile from Davenport's face, even when she faces the prospect of being sliced by the Graf backhand and pummelled by the forehand. 'With her,' the American said, 'I have absolutely nothing to lose. She's No 1 in the world, won a hundred Grand Slams, or whatever, so I just have to go for it.'

Fernandez excepted, the seeds remain on course in the women's singles. The other quarter-final in Graf's section of the draw will be between Conchita Martinez, No 3, and Kimiko Date, No 10. In the lower half of the draw, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, No 2, plays Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, No 8, and Gabriela Sabatini, No 4, faces Jana Novotna, the Wimbledon runner- up, No 5.

The top half of the men's draw is also shaping up. Pete Sampras, the world No 1, plays Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson, the No 10 seed, having broken through to a first Grand Slam quarter-final, and Jim Courier, the defending champion, seeded No 3, faces the No 5, Goran Ivanisevic.

Courier and Ivanisevic, who have each won three of their previous matches, will be meeting for the first time on a hard court. Courier expects Ivanisevic to have a 'different attitude' from their last encounter, in which the Croat won only five games in three sets in the final of last year's Italian Open on the clay of Rome. Sixty-six aces in four matches suggests that he will.

Sampras reached the last eight with a 7-6, 6-2, 7-6 win over Ivan Lendl, who said he would be returning to Australia but did not know whether it would be to play. Sampras recounted with humour the debt he owed the dedicated one for introducing him to his training methods.

Lendl invited Sampras to work with him at his home in Connecticut in December 1988, when the former world No 1 was playing in the Masters in New York. 'He played at night and got up at 6.30 next morning and made me do aerobics,' Sampras recalled. 'We'd hit in the garden in the morning, and he'd take a nap and I'd go for a 20-mile bike ride. He had his trainer in his car following me around, and he didn't let me quit. After I got back from a bike ride, four of his dogs were staring at me and growling. Ever since then, I'm afraid of dogs.

'Ivan is still very competitive and fit and hits the ball as well as anyone on the tour. If I were him, I'd keep on going. If there's a point where he's not enjoying it, I would hang it up. But if he starts coaching, I wouldn't want him to coach me]'

John Newcombe was yesterday named captain of Australia's Davis Cup team. Newcombe's long-time doubles partner, Tony Roche, was appointed coach.