Born-Again Champion: Lindsay Davenport Interview
By Brad Falkner
In the moments leading up to the final of the JPMorgan Chase Open, Lindsay Davenport breaks from her pre-match huddle with coach Adam Peterson and husband Jon Leach and joins rival Serena Williams in the tunnel leading out to the stadium court. As the pair march off to battle, they casually engage in the type of banter one might normally expect at the beauty parlor, country club or bridge club.
Once the match begins, Davenport puts the friendship aside and produces the brand of tennis that enabled her to claim three Grand Slam tournament singles titles (1998 U.S. Open, 1999 Wimbledon and 2000 Australian Open) and year-end No. 1 finishes in 1998 and 2001. So finely tuned was Davenportís game that she produced only one unforced error in the entire first set of her virtuoso 6-1, 6-3 drubbing of the once-invincible Williams. The L.A. title was a fitting encore to the previous weekís win at Stanford over Venus Williams, whom Davenport had not defeated in almost four years.
Fast forward to San Diego a week later and the results are the same, with Davenport completing a clean sweep of the three-stop California summer swing of the WTA Tour. She defeats Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina in straight sets in the 48-minute final of the Acura Classic. Myskina considers Davenport, not the Williams sisters, to be the strongest force in womenís tennis.
"The person has to be ready 100 percent, serving four aces in each game, returning unbelievable
and just be lucky," Myskina says. She is not alone in her analysis. The word in the womenís locker room these days is that Lindsay is the player to beat.
On court, Davenport epitomizes poise, carrying herself with the confidence of a champion, while possessing the heart of a fighter. What else could be expected? She did not drop a set after beating
Venus Williams in a third set tie-break in the final at Stanford and entered the Pilot Pen in New Haven with a 14-match, three tournament winning streak. It is the prelude to her first Grand Slam tournament
singles title all over again.
At age 28, a resurgent Davenport, who leads the tour with five singles titles this year, is back in a comfortable role: U.S. Open favorite.
For most of her return to the WTA Tour since July 2002, following an eight-month absence because of a right knee injury requiring surgery the previous January, Davenport has been cast in the role of perennial quarterfinalist ó or, at best, semifinalist ó a red flag to some, signaling the end of her career. Retirement, in fact, has been the topic of many a Davenport press conference lately, in part because Davenport herself said at Wimbledon that she would be surprised if she returned to the All England Club to play in 2005. Now it seems players such as Myskina, whose record against Davenport slipped to
0-3, might be hoping Davenport retires just to avoid the nightmare of seeing her across the net.
"Sampras won a U.S. Open and retired," Myskina says. "Maybe Lindsay wants to do the same thing. Sheís playing unbelievably. Maybe sheíll finish the year at No. 1 and then retire."
Perhaps. But if Myskinaís desires go unfulfilled and Davenport can stay healthy, she will be a force well into 2005 and beyond.
Tennis Week: For the better part of 2002 and 2003 the titles were not coming your way as often as before. This year, especially lately, youíve returned to your old form. Whatís the difference?
Lindsay Davenport: Not being injured almost this whole year, which has not happened for me in a long time, has enabled me to practice harder and play matches with a clearer head and not worry about other things or whatís going on with my body. Physically, I was not at my best. So the later matches of tournaments, like the semis and finals, were difficult to pull out. 2004 has been a great year and a huge relief. Just now Iím getting the confidence back that I lost when I was out for eight months with my knee; it took awhile. Then last year I had the foot problem bothering me all year, until I had surgery in October. Itís been a slow road back, but I still managed to always be near the top, whether I was a factor in winning tournaments or a semifinalist. Itís been nice to break back through and start winning tournaments again.
Tennis Week: Kim Clijsters was your nemesis for most of 2002 through 2003.
Lindsay Davenport: Part of it was timing. When she started playing better, thereís no question that it was the most difficult year and a half of my career. Would it have been different had I not be injured? Who knows. She was playing pretty great last year. It was tough. I knew that I couldnít last in long matches with my foot. So I think mentally trying to play points, I was always trying to end them too early, just trying to go for bigger shots. Now Iím playing calmer and with my focus. I will be looking forward to getting more chances against her when she comes back.
Tennis Week: In the tunnel before the final with Serena in L.A., you two were having a friendly conversation. Is that typical with the players on the WTA Tour? Iíve not seen that as much with the guys on the ATP tour.
Lindsay Davenport: It depends on who you are playing. Would that happen with Venus? No way. Sheís not as outgoing as Serena. Serena is great. We were in the same training room before the match joking around and talking about gossip magazines. She was showing me the ones she brought in, just stuff like that.
Tennis Week: So, like girl stuff?
Lindsay Davenport: Yeah, exactly! She was trying to give me some fashion tips. (Laughs) Sheís always had a great attitude to me about everything, win or lose. So I guess it depends on who you play.
Tennis Week: Are the Williams sisters still the last people that you want to see in your half of the draw?
Lindsay Davenport: The last few weeks or months, it hasnít felt the same as playing them two years ago when they were really dominant and no one was really looking forward to playing them. It would be premature to underestimate them. They are so incredibly balanced in what they do, with all of their off-court interests. I have such a hard time just doing tennis and trying to run an ordinary, boring lifestyle at home. I couldnít imagine trying to fit in everything that they do. I would imagine that pretty soon they will put a bigger commitment into tennis. I know that they are not happy or satisfied with the last few months.
Tennis Week: You have to feel very good about your chances this year in New York.
Lindsay Davenport: The last two Grand Slams have shown you that no one is really taking the bull by the horns. Who would have thought that Myskina and (Maria) Sharapova would have won? They are great players, but nobody has been totally dominating like Justine (Henin-Hardenne) was last year. So I feel like Iím in the best position that Iíve been in for a long time. I feel really great about my game, playing on hard courts and being in the states. I feel very confident every time I step out on the court.
Tennis Week: Anastasia Myskina told me that you are now the player to beat. That must be a nice feeling.
Lindsay Davenport: It is. But all that can change pretty quickly. People get on runs and obviously Iíve been playing really well, but youíve got to keep that going. Iím beating a lot of good players, which is a huge confidence builder. Iíve made huge strides in the last few weeks, in a lot of matches. A lot of times all you need is confidence to carry you through certain matches, and I feel like Iíve gotten that back. However, itís still (a few) weeks before the U.S. Open.
Tennis Week: How has your attitude changed?
Lindsay Davenport: Sometimes I would take losses too hard and that would shatter all the confidence that I had worked to build. I know that this is the best that Iíve played in a long time. Iím determined not to let myself destroy it, which Iíve been known to do sometimes.
Tennis Week: Whatís going on with Elena Dementievaís serve?
Lindsay Davenport: Sheís got a funny serve. We all know where itís going; it always goes to the forehand. What you donít know is if itís coming really soft or if itís coming hard. Itís crazy. You get some that come in at 50 (mph) and others that come in at 105 (mph). Sometimes I donít know if she knows whatís going to happen. Once the point starts, sheís a tough player.
Tennis Week: Youíve got a pretty solid practice partner at home. How does he fair against you?
Lindsay Davenport: He would probably beat me. We practice together about once a month. Heís pretty competitive and feisty. Male tennis players are pretty tough to compete against. He serves at like 130 mph and he does not play regularly. But heís still pretty good. If he was able to serve and volley and practice for a week or two, heíd be tough to beat.
Tennis Week: If or when you two have children, do you think you would come back and play like Sandrine Testud, or would that be it?
Lindsay Davenport: Thatís why I have not retired yet and Iím still playing now. I think physically it would be pretty tough, and I donít think it would be fair to my husband or our child.
Tennis Week: Would you retire if you won the U.S. Open?
Lindsay Davenport: I donít think that Iím ready to retire in a month, even if I were to win it. I definitely want to finish the year and finish playing at the Staples Center [in the WTA Tour Championships, Nov. 10-15]. I donít think winning the U.S. Open would change that.
Tennis Week: How much interest would you have in staying involved with the game as an announcer and/or as an administrator?
Lindsay Davenport: I wonít have a big role in the tennis world for a little while anyway. Iím pretty happy being anonymous, and I look forward to being at home more. I actually donít believe that the day you quit you should become an expert and become a commentator. I think that youíre maybe still too close to the game. I think itís almost good to step back for a year or two.
Tennis Week: What do you want to do after you leave the game?
Lindsay Davenport: I donít know. I donít know exactly when Iím going to hang it up. Iím lucky that I donít quite have to worry about that yet. Iím not really worried about that yet.
Tennis Week: Talk about some of the changes in the womenís game. You started with Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf. Now there are the Belgians, the Williams sisters and a bevy of fine Russian players. How have things changed from era to era?
Lindsay Davenport: The game has definitely gotten faster; thereís no question. The ball is always coming at you at a faster speed. I donít know if Gabyís serve would make it anymore. The players on a whole at the top are a lot friendlier. When I started 12 years ago, Steffi was very much to herself. Gaby was not unfriendly, but very shy. Arantxa always had her entourage around. It seems like everyone is more friendly and social and hangs out more together now. Venus is pretty competitive and serious before a match, nothing wrong with that. Even her, she is pretty friendly after the match and in general.
Tennis Week: What are your thoughts on the future of womenís tennis in the United States? Of all the U.S. women in the Top 100 immediately after Wimbledon, only two were younger than 23: Serena Williams and Shenay Perry.
Lindsay Davenport: Itís been disappointing the last five years, since Venus and Serena came up, that there has not been anyone else that has gotten near the top or really been in contention at the Grand Slams. The Russians seem like they have all these players coming out of the woodwork. Itís phenomenal. Every year it seems like two or three more make it into the Top 20. Thereís no question that if Jennifer, myself, Venus and Serena were to stop, it would be tough. Thereíd be nobody in there from the U.S. making a serious run at a Grand Slam. Hopefully some more players will come along in the next few years before weíre all gone.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams