Davenport masters art of diplomacy

US world No 2 prepares for year-ending Chase Championships by reflecting on her sport's politics

Thirty years ago this autumn the tennis world was in turmoil. Following the 1970 US Open at which Margaret Court had won just $3,000 for winning the women's singles - barely a third of what Ken Rosewall had earned by winning the men's - the publisher of World Tennis magazine, Gladys Heldman, signed up nine of the top women professionals on rebel contracts for a token one dollar. It shocked the still stuffy administrators of the sport, and gave birth to the modern women's tennis tour.

Thirty years ago this autumn the tennis world was in turmoil. Following the 1970 US Open at which Margaret Court had won just $3,000 for winning the women's singles - barely a third of what Ken Rosewall had earned by winning the men's - the publisher of World Tennis magazine, Gladys Heldman, signed up nine of the top women professionals on rebel contracts for a token one dollar. It shocked the still stuffy administrators of the sport, and gave birth to the modern women's tennis tour.

Today the Sanex WTA Tour calls itself the world's premier female sporting circuit, and Venus Williams picked up more than $750,000 (£515,000) for winning September's US Open. There is also a belief within the tour that this is the best period ever in women's tennis, such is the variety of stars at the top of the game, and last month a major breakthrough was achieved with the reinstatement of equal prize-money for men and women at the Australian Open.

In reality, though, the variety of talent is a shade limited, and close inspection suggests that on tennis achievements alone it is more a triumvirate carrying the torch of women's tennis: Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams. Hingis is the prodigy who achieved everything so young and whose spontaneity is either liked as freshness or derided as arrogance. Williams has a magnetism that goes beyond just being the first black superstar of the Open era in women's tennis. And Davenport? On the tennis circuit the 24-year-old Californian, who made it to three Grand Slam finals this year without ever being fully fit, is the most likeable of the three. She comes across as "the girl next door", a top-class tennis player because she simply loves sport and can do without the off-court fuss. But behind the easy-going character and remnants of girlish giggle is a stateswoman of tennis, who has some no-nonsense views of her sport.

As a member of the US Olympic and Fed Cup teams, Davenport is well aware of the role played 30 years ago by Heldman's nine pioneers, notably the charismatic Billie Jean King. After all, King captains the US women's team.

"When we play Fed Cup," Davenport says, "Billie Jean always lectures us on the need to be ambassadors, and I say: 'OK, that was 30 years ago, times have changed, players aren't the same.' If players don't want to get involved with the politics of the sport, there's nothing you can do.

"Steffi [Graf] and Monica [Seles] years ago wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. I'm very involved. I've been on the board of the tour for a number of years because I want to work for what's best for the sport 10-15 years from now, but we play a lot of tournaments and you have to get the balance right.

"I tell Billie: I understand your generation had a lot of things going on, and you get players now who don't enjoy doing all the stuff that you guys had to do. Unfortunately, we're a little spoiled. We have a sport that's so global now and is very popular that we don't have it as tough as they did.

"I think I'm at a lucky time when there are not just one or two players who can promote the sport. It's not just Chris [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova]. But I know we have to keep doing stuff." Davenport also points out that, when King joined Gladys Heldman's group of nine in 1970, she was already 26, which counts as old by today's standards on the women's tour. "People forget that the players are young," she says.

"Martina [Hingis] came on the tour at 14. It's hard to make a 15, 16 17-year-old start making these decisions." Though a pro at 16, Davenport refused to go full time on the tour until completing a certain level of education. She almost apologises for finishing "only high school" (i.e. not college), but recommends her approach to parents of young players. "A lot of times you find these children, sorry teenagers, who are so focused on their tennis, and it doesn't work out. For every Martina Hingis you get hundreds of others who never win a match, never make it on the pro tour, and it's sad that they haven't a lot to fall back on." As a result she says her friends on the tour are "some of the smarter ones".

"It's not like we sit there and analyse Shakespeare, but it's nice to have conversations other than like 'look at the fashion' or 'look at the lipstick colours'."

Naturally, one of Davenport's main interests is sport. "When I'm at home I watch all kinds of sports, I go to the hockey games, to the basketball, I love doing that. I think I grew up a bit of a tomboy, my dad didn't have any sons and I was the youngest one so he made me go to all the sporting things with him, so I've always enjoyed that."

Davenport will herself be one of the main attractions this week, when she resumes combat with Hingis and Williams at the tournament in Philadelphia. She is the defending champion and would dearly love to win the last staging of the event before the end spurt of the women's year moves to Europe next year. Last month she had a good run in Europe, losing a very close final in Zurich to Hingis, but beating Williams a week later to take the Linz title. A good run this week, or in next week's year-ending Chase Championships in New York will see her maintain her No 2 ranking in spite of a succession of injuries this year, the latest of which - tendinitis in her left foot - caused her to withdraw from her Olympic gold medal defence and has left her wearing special shoes.

The year has also given her a broader outlook on players with injuries. "I used to give Steffi a hard time, saying 'You're always injured, if it's not one thing it's another' and now I'm like: oh OK, I won't say anything any more. It's my eighth year as a pro, that has a lot to do with it also.

"It's been definitely a learning experience more than any other year. I haven't won as many titles, but maybe it means more because I've had to fight so much harder to stay up there." She also admitted this was the first year she wondered whether her time in tennis was up. "But I figured that came from not being healthy and trying to play when I wasn't 100 per cent. I don't think I'd be happy at 24 being out of the game altogether, so I'll play a few more years."

When Davenport won the Australian Open in January, the elder Williams sister was injured, but Venus came back to beat a partially fit Davenport in the Wimbledon and US Open finals. Of Venus, who has just joined Davenport on the WTA Tour board, she says: "I don't think you'd find any player who is that close to the Williams sisters, especially Venus - she's definitely a little more stand-offish, a little bit quiet and doesn't talk much, except maybe to Serena. It's a little hard at the beginning, but I think over the years the players have learned that it's just her way, she prefers to stay with her sister, and that's just who she is. At the Olympics, where the four of us [Davenport, Venus, Serena and Monica Seles] went through some experiences you don't normally have in life - she was actually pretty friendly with everybody and kind of came out of her shell a little."

As for Hingis: "I've always gotten along very well with Martina. We've always had a really great relationship, and we're able to joke around and talk. She is phenomenal. She has a great body type where she doesn't get injured very often, and she doesn't lose to any players except maybe the Williamses or myself. She's really consistent with her results, that's hard to do and I don't think people give her enough credit for that."

The difference in personalities among the triumvirate means Davenport will also come third in the limelight stakes - or even further down if one counts the public appeal of players like Anna Kournikova, whose high public profile is out of sync with her hitherto limited results. That, though, does not worry the relaxed Californian, who is happy to keep out of the spotlight and spend time in the serene surroundings of her home on Laguna Beach just south of Los Angeles.

The one worry comes when she says: "When I quit I just hope to get out of it and live a pretty quiet life." It would be a great shame if someone with her eloquence, spirit and appreciation of the big picture were to be lost to the sport.

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