Tennis: Davenport is a big success in every sense

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER AMERICAN president was reduced to tears. Harry Marmion, of the United States Tennis Association, could not contain his joy as he presented the women's singles trophy to California's Lindsay Davenport, the first home-grown US Open women's champion since Chris Evert in 1982.

Davenport, nearly 6ft 3in, was a huge success in every sense. She did not drop a set in winning her first Grand Slam singles title, overpowering Martina Hingis, the defending champion and world No1, in Saturday's final, 6-3, 7-5.

The triumph goes deeper than victory on the tennis court. The 22-year- old from Newport Beach had to contend with the break up of her parents' marriage while working hard to improve her physique and overcome self- consciousness about her size.

Davenport remembers, for example, playing the athletic Steffi Graf four years ago. "I was a very big girl, so I was terrified of losing badly or of doing something dumb," she says. "I was afraid of being laughed at." She was also acutely aware that the "pretty little things" were attracting most of the media attention.

Whenever Davenport advanced to the later stages of major championships, "lacks mobility" seemed a sensitive way to dismiss her chances. That was not the case here, when she was rewarded for a work ethic and diet which has sharpened her game and shed 30 pounds in the process.

Hingis, 17, who won three of the four Grand Slam titles last year, including Wimbledon, has seen all but the Australian championship disappear. She consoled herself with thoughts of her quarter-final win against Monica Seles ("I realised I could play tennis again") and the comeback from 1- 4 in the final set of her semi-final against a wavering Jana Novotna ("I have my willpower back").

But the overall impression is that the Swiss has lost the edge of fitness which enabled her to dominate opponents young and old. The contrast between Saturday's finalists was not only a question of height and power. Davenport often forced Hingis to move desperately rather than strategically.

The American broke twice before losing her own serve at 5-2 in the opening set, driving the ball deep to unsettle Hingis again in the next game.

Davenport held a point for 5-2 before losing her serve in the second set. Hingis broke again to lead 5-4, finding a line with a forehand, and the match seemed destined to go the distance until the Swiss double-faulted at 0-40 when serving for the set.

Hingis, her title slipping away, tried to sap Davenport's confidence with a drop shot on match point. It was the last throw, and not a particularly good one. In the past, Davenport might have had difficulty getting to the ball. This time she pounced to deliver a backhand winner.

During the Lipton Championships in March, somebody in the locker room made the point that no woman since Virginia Ruzici in 1978 had won a first Grand Slam title after the age of 21. While it gave Davenport pause for thought, she had already taken steps to ensure that she would not be left behind. "I think I've proved everybody wrong by improving a lot in the last couple of years," Davenport said. "People didn't give me a shot a couple of years ago to win a Grand Slam."

She found that irritating, particularly as she had returned from the Atlanta Olympic Games with the singles gold medal. "It was maybe overlooked a lot," she said. "That's fine with me. I'm just as proud of that as winning here, maybe more proud. It's a tremendous accomplishment. Unfortunately, people in tennis don't recognise it."

Davenport was schooled academically as well as on the tennis court, graduating from high school in 1994. "Both my parents were instrumental in making sure I stayed normal," she said. "I also think having two older sisters helps. I loved school."

Although prompted by her coach, Robert Vant'hof, to work on her fitness, Davenport emphasised that, "it was really important to do it for myself". She added: "When I got older I wanted to do it, that was the difference. I don't think I could have handled someone else telling me I needed to do it. When I was 18, if someone had told me I should go and run two hours a day, I would have said, 'Yeah, right' [and carried on the same as I was]."

Losing weight and looking better has given her more confidence, "even though the battle is going on". She now enjoys the fitness campaign. "It's just a lot of sprints on the court and going to the weight room three or four times a week. Most of the attention has been focused on sprints, nothing like long distance running, just stuff to try and get me faster and playing a lot.

"Robert has been with me every step of the way. In the beginning I used to complain a lot. Now I love to do it. It's a change of attitude that's developed."

Asked if winning a Grand Slam made her feel like a complete person, Davenport, replied: "Not really. I always said that if I never won one I'd still like myself and still keep on playing tennis. For me, it's important to enjoy everything. To do the best you can and try and win tournaments. But if I don't, life's not going to end."

As the streamlined Davenport proudly paraded the trophy, she would probably have taken it as a compliment to be told that she was only half the player she used to be.