Davenport's mother of all comebacks

Successful tennis mums may be rather thin on the ground but the 31-year-old American – who gave birth to a boy last year – is hoping to buck the trend, writes Paul Newman
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The Independent Online

Jagger Jonathan Leach must be one of the most travelled seven-month-old babies in the world. Last year he visited Bali, Beijing and Quebec and this week he arrived here in Melbourne – via Auckland – from his home in California. It is a good job his mother can afford the occasional first-class airfare.

Mum is Lindsay Davenport, who will succeed Steffi Graf as the highest-earning woman tennis player of all time if she beats Italy's Sara Errani in the first round of the Australian Open next week. The 31-year-old American would claim another place in history should she go on to win her first Grand Slam tournament since claiming the third of her career here eight years ago. It is 28 years since a mother won a Grand Slam title, Evonne Goolagong having lifted her second Wimbledon crown at the age of 29 in 1980.

Paula Radcliffe proved last year that motherhood should be no impediment to sporting success, but successful tennis mothers are thin on the ground. Sybille Bammer is the only other mother currently playing at the highest level, the 27-year-old Austrian having enjoyed considerable success since giving birth to a daughter seven years ago.

At No 19 in the world rankings, Bammer is one of only two mothers since Goolagong to have reached the world's top 20, the Peruvian Laura Gildemeister having done so in 1989. Goolagong was the first mother to win Wimbledon since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1914, although Margaret Court enjoyed many of her finest moments as a mother, winning the Australian, French and US Opens in 1973 and becoming the first mother to reach No 1 in the world. She retired two years later after a less successful comeback following the birth of her second child.

"There's absolutely no physical reason why players shouldn't come back after having babies," Dr Anik Shawdon, one of the Australian Open doctors, said here yesterday. "Maybe it's just that women tend to peak at a younger age in tennis than they do in other sports. You look at marathon runners and quite a lot of them reach their peak in their thirties.

"When you're pregnant you produce a hormone that makes you more relaxed, which helps you in labour, but within six weeks of giving birth your body changes back. After pregnancy a woman should be just as strong as she was before, if not stronger. Some women can put on quite a lot of weight during pregnancy, which might mean they will take a little longer to get back into shape, but if you maintain an exercise regime you should be able to come back pretty quickly.

"Many sportswomen actually find that they are mentally stronger when they return. The discipline that you have to follow when you have a baby, particularly if you're breast-feeding, should help you with the discipline you need in your training programme."

Davenport announced her return to competitive tennis just 38 days after giving birth in June and enjoyed immediate success. Returning after a 51-week absence, she has won three of the four tournaments she has entered, taking her career tally of titles to 54, although she has had to beat only three top 15 players (Jelena Jankovic, Daniela Hantuchova and Elena Dementieva) along the way. "I started off playing a few of the smaller tournaments and it's astonished me," Davenport said. "I didn't think my body would bounce back as fast as it has after giving birth and the strain of pregnancy."

Davenport says her main goal this year is to play at the Olympic Games, but with a vacuum developing at the top of women's tennis she may readjust her sights. While Justine Henin is firmly entrenched as the world No 1, there were doubts last year over the fitness – and even the ambition – of many of the other leading players, while the retirements of Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis deprived the game of two of its most charismatic figures.

None of the top players here will be as fresh as Davenport, though she is likely to face a major challenge in the second round against Maria Sharapova. Henin, Serena Williams and Jankovic are also in what is clearly the tougher half of the draw.

Davenport travels with a nanny, physical trainer and coach – her husband, Jon Leach, is an investment banker and is rarely able to join her on tour – and has enjoyed the challenge of combining tennis with motherhood.

"It's been really fun to do both," she said. "At the beginning when I would leave and go and play tennis for a couple of hours I would have all this guilt, but I've learnt that it's probably been good for both of us. I feel like my life on the road is more fulfilled now I have my son with me. Once the tennis is over all my attention is on him and I think that helps me focus on the court."