Tennis: Davenport seriously satisfied: Guy Hodgson sees a rising star enjoy her gifts

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER the reason for Mary Pierce's withdrawal from Wimbledon, Lindsey Davenport ought to devote a little time every night to give thanks for it. No malice intended of course, but the French Open runner-up's absence has turned out to be a sumptuously wrapped gift.

Davenport, the ninth seed, would have been contemplating a draw heavily laced with dangerous double-barrelled types like Sanchez Vicario and Garrison Jackson and a player who seems to be getting the hang of playing at Wimbledon, Martina Navratilova. Instead, she finds her path to the final blocked by less imposing hurdles.

The upshot of Pierce's absence was that Davenport was promoted into the top of the draw and with Steffi Graf falling at the first fence that has become the half of opportunity. The more so as Kimiko Date yesterday became the fourth fancied runner from that section to collapse.

Davenport beat Barbara Rittner of Germany 6-4, 3-6,

6-1 yesterday and arrives in the fourth round with the momentum of having climbed from 159th in the world 18 months ago to her current position of ninth. Already the Americans, desperate for a new face after Jennifer Capriati switched one grass for another, are getting excited, although her on-court demeanour would hardly suggest it.

All smiles in the interview room afterwards, she could not have been more lugubrious while she was exchanging shots with Rittner had she been auditioning for the title role in Throw Momma From a Train. Her bottom lip would have reached her knees had she been losing.

'I think you should be serious,' the 18-year-old Californian said. 'If you are laughing it kind of puts down your opponent. I have a great time off court and in practice I have fun, it's just in matches. I haven't really seen myself play. Maybe if I saw myself I would think it looks bad, too.'

She had a moments yesterday when her tennis looked bad, but after being broken twice in the second set she romped through the third. 'It was a tight 6-1,' she said. 'They were close games.'

Davenport was being serious, although deep down she would love games as close against Gabriela Sabatini, her next opponent. Although if anything was designed to put a smile on her face it was the way the Argentinian began her match against Meredith McGrath yesterday.

Sabatini, without a title for two years and whose rank has slipped as Davenport's has risen, was awful for five games but was still 3-2 ahead because her American opponent was even worse. McGrath, the winner at Eastbourne last Saturday, was clearly overawed by her first appearance on the Centre Court and succumbed 6-4, 6-1. True to the match's nature, the win was clinched by McGrath serving a double fault.

Sabatini put her opponent's performance down to inexperience and that was very much the theme of Lori McNeil's thoughts after her relatively simple 6-2, 6-4 victory against Kristie Boogert.

McNeil has not suffered a reaction to her shattering the air of Wimbledon invincibility that had surrounded Graf and that, she says, is the result of 10 years of slogging it out in Grand Slam tournaments. When she beat Chris Evert in the US Open in 1987 she was so flustered by the fuss she was in no fit state to play Graf in the semi-finals. This time it is different.

'I was little overwhelmed when I beat Chris,' she said. 'I couldn't imagine the attention. But now I accept it and I have a great support group, my family and friends. I just understand things better. You have to keep things in perspective and keep going.'

Date would love to be in the postion to do so. Japan's top player has managed to reach sixth place in the world rankings while only managing to reach one quarter-final in a Grand Slam tournament in a six-year career (the 1993 US Open) and she was hugely disappointing yesterday.

Her opponent, Larisa Neiland, is used to reaching the latter stages at Wimbledon, only usually she is in the company of a partner. She has played in five of the last six women's doubles finals but singles glory has been elusive. Even so she swept Date off court 6-3, 6-2 in 71 minutes.

(Photograph omitted)