Photo By Susan Mullane By Richard Pagliaro
Lindsay Davenport is back on top and looking forward to contending Down Under. Davenport officially regained her prominent place as world No. 1 with the release of the new WTA Tour rankings today and commemorated the occasion by cracking up.
The three-time Grand Slam champion — who has hinted she is nearing the end of her career — plans to launch her 2005 campaign on January 1st in Perth, partnering James Blake at the Hopman Cup, before taking another shot at reclaiming the Australian Open crown she won in 2000. At the age of 28, Davenport is driven by the desire to win another major rather than prestige that comes from retaining the top spot in the rankings.
"What I feel like I play for is the opportunity to win Grand Slams and I felt like this year I had two great opportunities at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and wasn't able to do it, but I'm looking forward to going to Australia and trying to win again and that's definitely the way I'm headed right now," Davenport said in today's conference call with the media she conducted from her Laguna Beach, California home. "If I can keep playing well and training hard I'd like to give myself another opportunity to do that. (I will probably) take it Grand Slam by Grand Slam."
Davenport's voice cracked throughout the call — not because of any catharsis over regaining the No. 1 rank she's held for a total of 38 weeks — but because she has been battling a fever and flu-like symptoms since competing in the Kremlin Cup in Moscow last week. Despite the draining effects of her illness, Davenport reached the final four in Moscow, falling for the first time in five career meetings to defending champion Anastasia Myskina, 6-4, 7-6(1).
Davenport holds a nearly 900-point lead over Amelie Mauresmo in the Porsche Race to the WTA Tour Championships and is fixed firmly in the driver's seat to finish as year-end No. 1 for the first time since 2001. Though no woman has ever retired while holding the top spot, Davenport said reigning as No. 1 won't deter her from retiring when she feels she's done.
"I was interested to hear that no play has ever retired at number one, but I really don't think that's going to matter at all," said Davenport, who confirmed she has committed to her tournament schedule through Indian Wells in March of 2005. "Sometimes the difference between one and two in the rankings can be a matter of a few hundred points. So it would be a coincidence if I felt like I was done I would be one, but I don't know exactly when that's going to be. I never tried to put too much emphasis on the ranking, while it's obviously a huge honor and great to be one, I've never felt like I played for just the ranking. So we'll see. I don't think it will impact it (her retirement decision) too much, though."
Her health may ultimately determine exactly when Davenport decides to call it quits.
Injuries have played a primary part Davenport's four-year Grand Slam title drought. She was confined to crutches for nine weeks after undergoing knee surgery to correct a cartilage defect in her right knee on January 11th, 2002 and was sidelined for the first three Slams of the 2002 season before reaching the U.S. Open semifinals later that year. She was forced to withdraw from the year-end WTA Tour Championships to undergo foot surgery to remove a small nerve between two toes in her left foot on October 15th, 2003.
The 1998 U.S. Open champion carried a 22-match winning streak with four consecutive tournament titles into her third consecutive Flushing Meadows semifinal last month. But her inspired summer-long sprint to the U.S. Open final four came to a painfully premature conclusion as Davenport hobbled out of the semifinals, succumbing to a strained left hip flexor that limited her lateral movement and an eager Svetlana Kuznetsova, who collected 1-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory.
"It's just one of those things that happened there," Davenport said of her U.S. Open loss. "I take care of myself so much better than I used to, I have my therapist who travels with me and that's really made a huge difference and I feel like I've cut down on my injuries significantly. I feel like it was bad luck, I mean I really don't know how else to say it, at the U.S. Open. It would have been nice to finish the match 100 percent, win or lose, but I obviously recovered from it and I'm going again."
After enduring two injury-plagued seasons, Davenport spent the off season engaged in a rigorous training programming, hired a physical therapist to travel with her and the internal investments have paid dividends as Davenport played much of the 2004 season in the best physical condition of her career. A healthy body has re-conditioned her confidence as a decisive Davenport has collected a Tour-best seven tournament titles, won 58 of 66 matches and regained the form she showed in advancing to at least the semifinals in a stretch of 12 of 16 Grand Slam events she entered from 1998 to 2002.
"I finally feel after a couple of years I've got my game back and maybe more importantly a lot of confidence back and feel like I've trained pretty hard this year, probably trained very hard not to just play well for a few months, but to give myself the opportunity to do it a little bit longer," Davenport said. "Obviously, Australia with the surface that's there, if I can be ready to go physically, I'd like to try to take the opportunity to win another one."
At an age where Advil can replace bananas as the pre-match meal of choice, Davenport believes her body can withstand the wear and tear of winning seven matches in a two-week span of a Grand Slam.
"I definitely think that's possible and one of the reasons I've been able to be so successful and so consistent and get to No. 1," Davenport said. "I've had some little injuries here and there, but for the most part I've been able to play tournaments and stay healthy."
Deteriorating cartilage in her right knee is a reminder that Davenport's career clock is ticking. She's determined to maximize the mileage left in her knee and make the most of whatever time she has left on Tour.
"The question with my knee is there's definitely some degenerating cartilage in there and it's held up all summer and I've definitely had to make some adjustments and modifications to my training to exactly what I can do with my right knee," Davenport said. "(It is) kind of a matter of time. I mean, it could be, like they (doctors) said, a couple of years or it could be a few months. That was a little bit in the back of my mind after the French, when I found that out, so I'm trying to make the most of it and it hasn't hurt at all since the French and hopefully it holds up for as long as my body will allow it to."
It was only four months ago when Davenport looked back on her body of work at Wimbledon and suggested retirement was imminent. Eventual Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova rallied from a one-set deficit to defeat Davenport, 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-1 in the Wimbledon semifinals in July. The dawning of teenage champion seemed to signal the departure of a past champion that day as a disappointed Davenport said immediately after the match that the defeat may well serve as her farewell to Wimbledon.
"I doubt I'll be back," Davenport said at the time. "It was a tough loss to take, but I lost to someone who rose to the challenge today. I don't think I gave it away. She totally deserved it. I had control of the match and she took it away."
The semifinal setback to Sharapova seemed to mark the end for Davenport. In retrospect, it was only the beginning. It was during the Wimbledon fortnight when Davenport felt her form began to rise and she points to her 7-6(4), 5-7, 7-6(4) victory over Venus Williams in the Stanford final in July as a turning point in her season.
"I started to play well at Wimbledon and didn't win the semifinal match. Looking back on it now I can talk about it with more disappointment, but at the time I was pretty excited," Davenport said. "I was just starting to play at a higher level than what I'd played for the previous 18 months.Then at Stanford, winning the final against Venus, 7-6 in the third, and winning a really close match really gave me a lot of confidence. Those things pulled me through the whole summer."
Setting her sights on the year-end WTA Tour Championships that begin on November 8th at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Davenport will be one of the favorites in the Championships field that will be without two-time champion Kim Clijsters and former No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne, who are both sidelined for the rest of the season. Davenport, second-ranked Amelie Mauresmo, the third-ranked Myskina, fourth-ranked Kuznetsova and fifth-ranked Elena Dementieva have qualified for five of the eight spots in the round-robin tournament. Grand Slam champions Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati have yet to secure spots in the tournament, which has drawn disappointing attendance in Los Angeles, prompting speculation that the Tour will shop for a new host site after the 2005 tournament completes its pact with the Staples Center or merge with the ATP Tour for a combined year-end championships.
"I think the tour made the right step a few years ago when they went to the round-robin format," Davenport said. "Last year was the first year, I think, and I actually have not competed with in the Tour Championships with it being in that format. And I think having just the top eight and not the top 16 makes it a lot more special and a lot more difficult to try to win that tournament. I think it would be interesting to see it combined with the men — I hadn't really thought about that before — but I think we just have to find a great city and get the town very excited about The Championships, and I think it would do great."