Reflections on Lindsay's Career (please read)
Lindsay Davenport’s pregnancy hardly comes as a surprise; it has, in tandem with retirement talk, been the background theme to her career for the past two or three years. And while she has not officially called it a day, it would appear that with this announcement the two themes have intersected – her full time career is certainly over and if Davenport is true to character it is difficult to see her back at all. It is therefore a useful juncture to reflect on a grand career.
Lindsay Davenport has never been the star of the show, but she has been the tour’s bedrock for the last decade. Her rankings history illustrates this picture brilliantly. In the past ten years Davenport has finished in the top three 7 times (1997,1998,1999,2000,2001,2004,2005), of those 6 were spent in the top two ( 1998,1999,2000,2001,2004,2005) and four at number one (1998,2001,2004,2005). Of the years she failed to make the top 3, she spent more than six months out in both 2002 and 2006 with injury and was crippled by injuries in a season when she still finished in the top 5 in 2003. It’s a record of excellence that the so called brighter lights of her generation – Hingis, Henin and the Williams Sisters - cannot match; surpassed only by the true legends such as Graf, Evert and Navratilova.
Davenport was never a prodigy. As a teen she was first overshadowed by the likes of Capriati and Seles and as she entered her twenties was seemingly destined to be left behind by the new wave of teen stars - Hingis, Williams, Kournikova and Lucic. When she broke through for her first major title at the 1998 US Open, at the age of 22, she admitted that no one had ever thought that she would amount to anything. Yet in the end, Davenport remained on the top of the sport long after her more fancied rivals had reached their expiry date.
In hindsight, Davenport’s success probably should not have come as so great a surprise. As a teenager she always carried too much condition, yet by the age of 18 she was safely inside the top ten – finishing at number six in 1994. Striking the ball as hard and as cleanly as any woman ever had, the signs were there that if she were ever to get into shape the number one ranking beckoned. But by the end of 1995, when she had slumped to number 12 in the world, this looked but a pipe dream. At the age of 19, and with poisonous locker room whispers labelling her ‘dump truck’, Davenport considered retirement. She was convinced to go on by her great friend Mary Joe Fernandez and enlisted the immortal Billy Jean King to whip her into shape. Over the next decade her career became one of the greatest testimonies to work ethic and commitment in WTA history.
The hard work began to pay off almost immediately. In the summer of 1996, she beat four top ten players in succession to win Olympic Gold in Atlanta. In the gold medal match she out hit the Barcelona Bumblebee Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who in five previous meetings had run the towering Davenport ragged. It was a watershed match. A couple of weeks later she clobbered the world number one Graf in straight sets for her first victory over a number one player en route to the title in Los Angeles. In 1997 she won 6 titles, became one of only 5 players all year to defeat the 16 year old world number one Hingis and entered the top five and then the top three for the first time. Yet despite this steady improvement, she was still underestimated. In May 1998, Hingis’ ever present mother Melanie Molitor declared Venus Williams the biggest threat to her daughter’s status as the best player in the world. She was forced to eat her words a few months later when Davenport battered Williams and Hingis in succession to win the US Open and then dethroned Hingis as number one on October 12 1998. Davenport was WTA player of the year in 1998 and 1999. In 1999-2000 she won five straight encounters with Hingis in straight sets. During this period she added an emotional 1999 Wimbledon victory over the legendary Graf and a brutal thrashing of Hingis in the 2000 Australian Open final to her Grand Slam resume.
For a woman often criticised for a seeming lack of on court vigour and commitment (particularly after her defeat at Wimbledon in 2004, and even more so after her 2005 Australian Open finals loss to Serena Williams), the moniker of the hardest worker of her generation may seem ill fitting. Yet the more I survey her career, the more I am convinced of its appropriateness. Davenport was never a great athlete. Yet unlike those who were also athletically handicapped – Hingis and Seles come to mind for different reasons – there was never a sense in the last ten years of her career that she could have gotten more out of her body if only she had the will. And then there were those more athletically gifted but who could only sustain the motivation to be in top shape for short bursts of time such as Serena and Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Kim Clijsters. For hard work and commitment sustained over a long period, only Henin-Hardenne rivals Davenport, but she has sustained that commitment for four or five years, Davenport for ten.
Without this commitment it’s hard to see how Davenport’s Indian Summer of 2004-2005 could have come to a fruition. After hitting her peak in 1998-2000, Davenport had gradually been slowed by a combination of knee, wrist, shoulder, foot and ankle injuries. Despite still residing in the top 5 at the end of 2003, her game looked outmoded by the faster, athletic games of the Williams Sisters, Clijsters and Henin Hardenne – and the gulf seemed to be widening. At the beginning of 2004, Davenport had won just one title in the preceding two seasons. She looked only a minor hope of adding significantly to her imposing 38 career titles, 38 weeks at number one, dual year end number one crowns and three major titles. After a discouraging semi-final loss to Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon 2004 she signalled that the end was nigh. Yet after Wimbledon her persistence finally paid off as her intimidating game ‘clicked’. She went on a tear of four straight tournament victories over the American summer – by the fall she was number one again.
For many people her 2004 and 2005 seasons alone constitute a mighty successful career. She finished both seasons ranked number one, spending another 50 weeks there in total. She collected seven titles in 2004 and six in 2005 and, perhaps most satisfyingly, turned her head to heads with both Williams Sisters and Clijsters around. The one link missing was a fourth major but she went agonisingly close at Wimbledon and US Open in 2004, at the Australian Open in 2005 and in a Wimbledon final against Venus Williams in 2005 where she held match point before losing a match for the ages, 9-7 in the third set. Her 2004 and 2005 exploits took her career titles to 51, leaving her contemporaries like Hingis, the Williams Sisters, Capriati, Henin and Clijsters well in arrears. Of that group, only Hingis has spent more time at number one, but Davenport ended there four times to Hingis’ three. Her career Prize money was boosted to $21,763,653 leaving her just over a hundred thousand short of being the winningness female player of all time.
Throughout it all Davenport’s abiding normality has been the foundation of her public persona and a grounding force on the WTA. When Davenport was finally fulfilling her promise in the late nineties, the WTA was in danger of becoming a circus act. The pubescent Hingis ruled the tour with a maturity beyond her years on court and petulance which reflected her youth off it (or when things went wrong on it). The Williams Sisters were equally brash and brought with them the baggage of race and a loud mouth father. Then there was Anna Kournikova, unquestionably the greatest celebrity ever to play on tour ,and the eternally glamorous Mary Pierce. Finally, there were the human struggles of Seles, in her attempt to recapture her glory days, and Capriati, trying to finally realise her potential after years in the wilderness. Davenport was always a tennis player first, and a celebrity second. And as her waistline shrunk, her personality bloomed as she developed into the tour’s greatest spokesperson. Sometimes controversial (such as her comments on Amelie Mauresmo’s masculine game after the 1999 Australian Open semifinal), she was always frank on issues from electronic line calling, to drugs, to equal prize money. She won the Diamond Aces Award for tour promotion in 1998 and 1999 and the Sportsmanship award in 2004 and has been prominent on the player’s council. While Davenport once seemed outnumbered by the tour glamour girls, it is her no frills commitment to the game which is now reflected in the attitude of the tour’s elite. You won’t find any of today’s top players – Mauresmo, Henin and even the classically good looking Sharapova - succumbing to the allure of the diva as Kournikova, the Williams Sisters and Hingis once did.
Yet in many ways Davenport’s normality was also her greatest enemy. While Henin Hardenne and Sharapova have professionalism in common with Davenport, their attitude also differs somewhat from hers in that tennis has always been a fantastic job and pastime, but not a life’s calling for Davenport. While Davenport has poured everything she possibly can into tennis, she has always compartmentalised the game in a way that other champions of the past and present haven’t. Davenport has never lived for tennis, it has always been just a part of her life. She had a ‘normal’ childhood, graduated high school and went to Prom; she got married and is now preparing for motherhood. In this context tennis has never been do or die as it is for Sharapova and Henin-Hardenne. Tennis has always been what she does, not who she is. This is perhaps reflected in her on court attitude which has at times seemingly left much to be desired. To adopt a cliché, even given her physical limitations, the most notable absentee from Davenport’s arsenal was a “killer instinct”. In many ways, Davenport’s normality has proved as big an obstacle to her success as the Williams Sisters' celebrity.
Davenport leaves tennis with a rich legacy and many wonderful memories, but perhaps less success on the biggest stages than her brilliant ball striking and admirable work ethic merited. Of course it is exactly those qualities that have held her back as a tennis player that ought to set her up for a successful life after tennis, particularly as a parent. If maternity is the end of the line for Davenport, it is fitting that her career is not ended by one of the plethora of tennis injuries that may have brought it to an end at any moment, but by the interference of ‘normal’ ‘everyday’ life. Davenport wouldn’t have it any other way.
Last edited by Robbie.; Dec 14th, 2006 at 10:07 AM.