Friday, May 28, 2004
By Greg Garber
PARIS -- For European and South American players, Roland Garros is the ultimate cathedral for tennis.
For Lindsay Davenport, it is, well, something less than Charleston, Zurich or Oklahoma City.
On Friday, the Californian was asked where she would rank the French Open among the four Grand Slams.
"Hmmmm," Davenport said, smiling. "For whatever reason, this one's just always been the most difficult for me. I've never felt like I really have played great tennis here. The other ones seem to help my game a lot more; I find it a lot more of a struggle here, and a lot of unknowns.
"To be in the Round of 16, it gets me really happy. Where the other Grand Slams, I'd be, 'OK, we've got to get going.' Here, I'm like, 'All right, into the second week.'"
Uh, we'll take that as the French sits fourth out of four.
For nearly a week now, Davenport, 27, has been downplaying her chances of winning the title here -- a feat that would bring her a personal Grand Slam, to go with her 1998 U.S. Open, 1999 Wimbledon and 2000 Australian Open championships. To put that milestone in perspective, the only active players to win a major on every surface are Serena Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Martina Navratilova. The list is shorter on the men's side: Andre Agassi.
Even after her resounding 6-1, 6-4 victory over Marissa Irvin vaulted her into the fourth round, Davenport was backpedaling.
"This is for sure the one tournament where I don't really care who is waiting possibly in the next round, round after that, or who's lost on the other half," Davenport said. "It's a real struggle sometimes here each match."
The way the draw is opening up, though, this is probably Davenport's best chance to win the title here. Justine Henin-Hardenne, the defending champion, is gone from her half of the draw and 2003 finalist Kim Clijsters never got to Paris. The biggest obstacle is Amelie Mauresmo, the No. 3 seed and sentimental French choice. But the best Mauresmo has done her in nine tries is last year's quarterfinal appearance. No one on the other side of the draw, including the Williams sisters, has been in anything approaching stellar form.
Davenport, for all her denials, has done quite well here. In a span of four years (1996-1999) she reached the semifinals and two quarterfinals. Last year, a truly cathartic one for her, Davenport reached the fourth round before a reoccurring foot injury forced her to retire from her match against Conchita Martinez.
It was a season of addition and subtraction. Davenport parted ways with Robert Van't Hof, her coach of seven years, but she picked up a husband, Jon Leach, the brother of tennis player Rick Leach. Just when she was starting to regain her form after knee surgery in 2002 she began suffering from Morton's neuroma in her left foot, which finally demanded surgery in October. The mass that was growing on the nerve between her third and fourth toes was successfully removed.
"I was so almost happy when the tournaments in Europe were over," she said the day before the French started. "I knew it was the end, you know, like a huge weight was off my shoulder.
"This year, I felt the opposite. It's been really enjoyable. Maybe that's compared to everything that happened last year."
In truth, Davenport's style and substance do not translate well on clay. At 6-foot-2 ½, she is a big hitter. Not only does clay take some of the speed off her deep groundstrokes and dangerous serve -- huge weapons on a harder, faster surface -- but it forces her to move, which is hardly her strength.
But against Irvin, she was never pressured into flight. Davenport lost the first game of the match and then won the next six. Irvin was serving at 1-3, when Davenport ripped off four winners: an overhead, a forehand service return, a forehand down the line and, finally, another perfectly grooved forehand down the line.
It was over in 63 minutes, but now the real tournament begins. Davenport's next opponent will be No. 9 seed Elena Dementieva, who advanced after Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi retired from their match due to severe muscle cramps. Smashnova-Pistolesi was leading 6-0, 7-6 (2), 1-0, when she withdrew.
A matchup with Dementieva may well be challenging, just as it would have been had Smashnova-Pistolesi advanced instead, as both are clay-court proficient players.
A win would likely set up a quarterfinal with Mauresmo.
"I would love to be able to get through the next round and get a shot at, hopefully, Amelie in the quarters," Davenport said. "It would be an exciting atmosphere to have the crowd against you and see what you can pull off."
Coming into the French Open, Davenport had won 76 percent of her matches on clay. Her first title, in 1993, came on the clay in Lucerne, Switzerland. Her last title came last month in Amelia Island, Fla., on green clay.
What would it mean to with the French Open?
"Disbelief," Davenport said, laughing. "Amazement. I'd probably have to retire there on the spot. I'm kidding.
"I couldn't imagine the feelings that that would bring out if I were to win here. The first one in over four years, it would be pretty remarkable."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.