Tennis: Davenport's refreshing perspective

The nice girl who can finish first is on the verge of being No 1 again.
Click to follow
HAVING HELD the No 1 ranking for only four months before being usurped by Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport has a glorious chance to reclaim it at the Evert Cup this week.

The tournament, at Indian Wells, is in the area of southern California where she was brought up and still lives, and the hard courts here are the ones on which she honed her game. Also, she is a mere 90 points behind Hingis. So then, Lindsay, is it back to No 1 soon? The 22-year-old Davenport ponders the question, gazes down from her place 6ft 2in above ground level and delivers her verdict: "For me, it's not life or death. If I had my choice this year, if I could either win another Grand Slam or become No 1, I would always choose the Grand Slam. That's the way I look at the rankings. Having said that, obviously I am going to try extremely hard to get the No 1 back. But if I win the tournaments the ranking will take care of itself."

Davenport edged Hingis aside at a tournament in Germany last October. She heard the news while in the players' lounge, waiting to go on court. "As soon as I got it, Martina was coming up to me saying, `I need it back, I want it back.' We would joke about it but clearly it means a lot to her, just as it does to Pete Sampras."

Davenport was dislodged from the summit after an unexpected defeat by Amanda Coetzer in Tokyo a month ago, her last match. Since then she has been lying low at the Newport Beach home she shares with her mother, Ann, taking a break and trying to shake off a chest infection. Her first match back will be a hard-hitting corker against Serena Williams.

Despite that Tokyo setback and her Australian Open semi-final loss to Amelie Mauresmo, Davenport is happy with her year so far. "Winning in Sydney and beating Steffi Graf and Hingis was a great way to start the year and I was actually really happy with the way I played at the Australian Open."

Ah yes, the Australian, where she was quoted, or misquoted as she now insists, as saying that the muscular French girl played like a man. "I was completely talking about tennis and everyone took it the other way. So I definitely learned my lesson. Never again am I going to say too much, good or bad, about another player. I was talking about the top-spin and the rip she gets on the ball, like some guys. You need to be very strong to do that."

Lindsay should know, since nobody wallops the ball harder than her. She was national No 1 in the 10 and 12-year groups, already so tall that the mother of one of her opponents demanded to see her birth certificate. Soon she was nicknamed Bagel, after the tennis word for a 6-0 set, and walked around stoop-shouldered trying to appear shorter until she was ordered by her mother to straighten up.

Three months before her 17th birthday she turned professional, by which time she was not only tall, but big. One leading American tennis commentator, confessing his surprise at her climb to No 1, said: "I always thought she'd be happy to weigh 210lb and be No 8." But she showed that nice girls can finish first, as well as lose poundage.

Robert Van't Hof, who hauled Davenport's career out of an early crisis when he became her coach in December 1995, says: "Lindsay is pretty much what everybody sees. She is intelligent, funny, independent, social. She has a lot of friends." The on-court downturn came when her parents suddenly divorced, pitching her into untypical depression, but the upturn came within six months when she won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics.

Having seen another US golden girl, the swimmer Amy Van Dyken, showing off her Olympic rings tattoo, Davenport said: "I knew right away I had to have one but it had to be somewhere out of sight." So the tattoo was placed at what she delicately calls "my lower right rear hip". When one of her sisters pointed out that she would never be able to get it off, she replied, "Why would I want to?"

Though she did not celebrate with more tattoo work, Davenport matched the Olympic moment with US Open success last September. The American national coach, Valerie Ziegenfuss, called it "a victory for every so-called slow- footed big woman". It was a popular win, too, for one of the least complicated players on the circuit, someone free of emotional baggage and an ostentatious entourage.

So certain was she of defeating Hingis in the US final that she says she awoke on the morning of the match and told herself: "This is my tournament, my time." And it was typical of her that afterwards she celebrated with a soaking, not in champagne but beer.

Lindsay Davenport needs no introduction these days, except possibly to those busy glamorising the women's game. No offers from GQ for her. Who cares? "For me, being an athlete is enough. I get paid to win and I'm just not comfortable with the idea of posing in a fancy hairdo and a ton of make-up."

Her sisters, Shannon and Leiann, needle her about the need to start a relationship, something she wants but for which she says she has no time. "I want a man who is secure on his own," she says. "Not somebody who follows me all over the place while I play."

But things are changing in the Davenport world. On television last month an interviewer dared her to show her tattoo, at which she turned her back to the camera and decorously lowered her knickers just far enough. "Can you believe I did that?" she says. These days, the answer has to be yes.