Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Delay helps Davenport find her touch

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LINDSAY DAVENPORT is far too nice, but if she did want to scratch out Anna Kournikova's eyes it would be understandable if not pardonable. The latter could serve tea and still have her picture taken, the former finds that even winning tournaments is not enough.

The 23-year-old American is the US Open and Olympic champion and, believe it or not, the highest ranked woman left in Wimbledon. Yet her profile remains at about the same level as the pre-tournament lawn on Centre Court: nicely manicured but flat. Perhaps she ought to threaten a linesman or two.

If she did she would cause alarm because even though she has slimmed down, at 6ft 2in she could still cause a body-builder to blanch. Her frame, and a scorching first serve, suggest she ought to be good on grass but her record argues otherwise as she has managed only three quarter-finals at the All England Club in seven attempts.

Yesterday she made her third with a 7-6, 6-1 win over Austria's Barbara Schett which, comfortable though it looks, exposed Davenport's frailties. "I was nervous," she said. "I think it was the occasion. I just really wanted to get to the quarters."

There was definitely something wrong with Davenport at the start and if the rain had not intervened after half an hour yesterday there was every chance you would have been reading "third seed out" headlines this morning.

The Miss Schett the umpire kept referring to might sound similar to what you and I might say when we put out a smash, but she is ranked 13th in the world and in many ways is a pocket-sized Davenport. She, too, has slipped virtually unnoticed into the top 20 but contains a forehand that makes you wince even from a distance.

In the boxing ring the difference in size would have made it a mismatch but the two slugged it out from the base-line and Schett was ahead on points and games, 5-3, when the heavens opened to dampen Davenport's tension.

"This was one of those times when the rain delay helped me immensely," she said. Some days you are just more nervous than others. And you can't overlook that Barbara is a very good player."

In the dry of the dressing room her coach, Robert Van't Hof, went to work on her mind. "He told me to relax," she said, "to hold the racket looser and just let the shots flow. Don't try and force them. Sometimes being first on a court you can't get warmed up until a bit later."

Two and a half hours later a more sanguine Davenport emerged to reveal the mark of a champion: ruthlessness. Schett had six set points but blew them all, Davenport, who broke back to 30 in the first game after the interruption, had only one and converted it to take the tie-break 9-7.

Once the breach had been made, the flood followed and Davenport crashed through the second set in 25 minutes to set up an intriguing quarter-final against the holder Jana Novotna, who beat Nathalie Dechy of France 6-3, 7-5.

If Davenport occasionally lets nerves affect her, she is nothing compared to Novotna who is so temperamentally suspect you would be loth to back her with anything substantial even if she was 6-0, 5-0 ahead and her opponent was on crutches.

Her press conference began with the assertion: "You looked a little uneasy," which is a bit like stating the grass had a tint of green but despite losing her serve three times she struggled through in 1hr 53min and will have an unseeded opponent in the semi-finals if she can get past Davenport.

That is not straightforward by any means because Novotna has never beaten her but grass is her favourite surface. "We've always played on hard courts or indoors before so this time the surface will play to my advantage. Nevertheless she's a very difficult opponent with a lot of weapons."

Novotna, more than any one, was relieved to get her match over with because the ankle she injured in the French Open requires as much rest as possible. Even yesterday she was unsteady going into the interview room.

"I'm icing it now," she said, "because there's still some inflammation. It's not completely healed and, basically, I've been abusing it by playing ever since. I don't have full mobility but with heavy tape I'm managing to do fine."

The second-seeded Steffi Graf was two games away from her 10th appearance in a Wimbledon quarter-final at 6-2, 4-2 up against Belgium's Kim Clijsters when rain halted play and last year's runner-up, Nathalie Tauziat, had taken the first set 6-4 against Dominique Van Roost. Both matches are scheduled to finish today.