Tennis: Hard graft gives Davenport the edge as erratic form evens out

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The Independent Online
Now the men have finished their smash 'n' grab raid at the ATP Championships in Hannover, it is the turn of the women to battle it out over their end of season booty. Jane Marlow reports from New York.

With the "Race to the Chase" completed, the leading 16 singles players and top eight doubles teams are here, pursuing the biggest portion of the $2m (pounds 1.25m) pie.

Madison Square Garden has already been the sight of some unexpected casualties. The serve and volley onslaught of France's Nathalie Tauziat proved too much for the No 4 seed, Amanda Coetzer, who, in spite of large support from a small crowd, went down in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3 on the first day of the WTA Chase Championships.

"It's disappointing," said Coetzer, who won her second singles title of the year last October in Luxembourg. "Because I had a pretty good indoor season and really felt this could have been one of those times when I could have come [here] and done well."

Tauziat, 30, whose win broke a four-year duck at the tournament, joined her compatriot Mary Pierce in the quarter-finals. It was only the No 8 seeded Romanian Irina Spirlea's defeat of another French player, Sandrine Testud, who stopped it being une veritable nuit francaise.

There was upset in the doubles, too. A first-round defeat was hardly fitting for the fan's favourite and doyenne of doubles, Gigi Fernandez, in the final tournament of her career, but, alongside partner Natasha Zvereva, she bowed out in three sets to Helena Sukova and Larisa Neiland.

With 12 singles titles under her belt already this year, Martina Hingis has looked like the form horse coming into these championships, but had she glanced over her shoulder she would have been Lindsay Davenport steaming into town. The 21-year-old American seems to have timed her surge up the rankings to perfection. Being runner-up in a tight three-set final against Hingis at the Advanta Championships last week took her to No 2 in the world, knocking Jana Novotna off her perch and attaining a career-high in the process.

Davenport, whose ranking has dipped in and out of the top 10 since 1994, has in the past been criticised for lacking speed and mobility in her game. She puts her improved form down not to dieting but to extra time on the practice court.

"I am dedicated to my sport," she said recently. "I worked hard and lost a lot of weight. I go to the gym more. I'm stronger and have more stamina. I'm stronger late in the week and at this time of year."

Although weight might have caused some problems, her height has only been an advantage. The 6ft 2in Californian could easily have followed in her parents' footsteps and been lured into a career in volleyball. "I started playing tennis when I was seven years old," Davenport said. "All my family were into volleyball but I liked tennis and I just kind of stuck with it."

Having won six singles titles on the tour this year, which has all but doubled a career tally that includes an Olympic gold medal, she must be confident that she made the right decision.

Groundstrokes and a powerful serve are the elements that characterise Davenport's game. "I'm not flashy," she admits. "You don't see me hit many drop volleys."

Yet she is a formidable doubles player, too. The combination of her baseline power and Novotna's prowess at the net has made them the No 3 seeds. Today it is her former doubles partner, the unseeded Mary Joe Fernandez, who stands between Davenport and a place in the quarter-finals.