*Rolls Eyes*. . . Whatever!
Posted 12/15/2006 @ 2 :10 PM
Well, we had quite the OT discussion (hiccup!) last night, but by light of day we're once again mild-mannered inquiring minds focused on tennis, Right? So let's get back to the second story that popped up on the radar during yesterday's ultimate good news (Lindsay's pregnant!)/bad news (Lamar Hunt died) day. That would be Lindsay's effective retirement from tennis for a far better reason than chronic back pain or death-by-wealth (remember, this girl very quiet piled up over $21 million in prize money; that's a lot of gear at American Girl, huh?)
Anyway, I'll kick it off with a confession: Lindsay is the player I hate to love. But I can't help myself.
I can think of a dozen things to rant against her about, because she makes my job tricky. She's the anti-thesis of the enormous, papier-mâché model of the archetypal warrior against which we ink-stained wretches like to measure tennis champions. We want our tennis champions to, in the words of Jimmy Connors, “spill their guts” (something Jimbo did frequently, and without a trace of self-consciousness), and we want them to snort fire and rain brimstone down on their rivals. We want them to, in the words of John McEnroe, “take the sport to the next level.” We want to hear them say, in the words of Andre Agassi, “I stood on your shoulders and you lifted me.”
We also want them to “leave it all out there” and then, after squeezing every ounce of potential out of their bodies and minds, go gimping off into the twilight, driven off by the younger jackals, waving and muttering, “Tennis been very good to me!”
To all of which Lindsay, A SoCal girl through and through, cheerfully replied “No way, dude!”
She is, after all, the human equivalent of the rolled eyes, followed by a drawled, “Whatever!”
Among blue-chip champions, she will forever be known as the dissident. Nothing could make her suppress her mellow gene, which isn't to say that she was above experiencing acute stress (the opposite is true) or bitter disappointment or even existential doubt (she spent a good part of her career waging a generally unsuccessful battle against demons of self-conscious that any girl who has always been big can tell you all about). But she was the absolute master of getting past those fleeting blows and dark moments. Lindsay was great at moving on; waking up each day to a new sun.
In a way, Lindsay was the closest thing to a slacker that tennis has ever produced. Just compare the official parting words she showered on our friend, ESPN.com contributor Bonnie DeSimone, to those we heard so recently from Andre Agassi:
I hate the word 'retirement' but this season was such a struggle physically for me and I can't imagine playing again. I feel like the second part of my life is about to begin. . . I can't say there's any sadness yet about missing tennis. My life is with my husband and my future child. I feel so lucky that if everything goes well, I'm able to go out like this. The timing couldn't be better."
This isn't a farewell address, it's a getaway speech!
And that's vintage Lindsay.
And here's the really weird thing: Lindsay was a four-time year-end No. 1, an Olympic gold medalist, a Grand Slam title holder at every major except the French Open, and the winner of 51 tournaments – just nine short of Andre Agassi’s take, and 9 up on one of her career rivals, Martina Hingis. Those glittering stats are a tribute to her game and amazing ability as a ball striker. No player has ever worked so hard to fly under the radar. If she were at a cocktail party and somebody called out, Hey, anybody in here ever win a Grand Slam title? Lindsay would be the one asking the bartender for another mineral water, pretending she hadn't heard a thing.
It's hard to appreciate how Davenport could be so blase about her status without understanding this critical element in her biography: Unlike fellow prodigies Steffi Graf and Monica Seles (among others) Davenport led a typical, teen-ager's life well into her prime as a player. And we're not talking "typical" in the way the spinmeisters like to apply it to every child laboring in a tennis sweat shop: She likes horses! She enjoys Instant Messaging her former friends from middle-school and Quentin Tarantino! She visited the mall last week! She's leading the life of a regular teenager!
By the age of 14, everybody was saying that Lindsay was going to be the next big thing, although that was just about the time that, owing to her height and weight, the last thing she wanted was the be the next big anything. At the time she graduated from Murietta High School in 1994, she was not just a regular high schooler with regular issues related to her not entirely regular appearance, she was in the World Top 10, and destined to hit No. 6 by that summer.
What this means is that instead of being sequestered at some tennis academy, surrounded by fawning handlers working overtime to shield her from reality and keep her focused on tennis, Lindsay was struggling with the familiar pains of high school life while kicking booty and taking names on the pro tour. It helped that she On her CV, tennis was not under the heading, "Occupation," but "Hobbies and Activities." Once established, the pattern pretty much stayed that way, even when she became a full-time tennis pro. You could easily call her The Last Amateur, although she was so good that the idea of going on to college instead of the pro tour was an absurdity that even she couldn't contemplate with a straight face.
Lindsay appeared to like regular life so much that even as she accumulated a great record, she seemed to want to distance herself from it. It often seemed that the last thing she would want to do is dominate, so at some critical junctures in her career (the notable exception was that spectacular, superb Wimbledon final she lost to Venus Williams in 2005), she went into a funk, seemed to lose interest, moped and choked. . . she found amazing ways to lose, and often cut the perfect role model for anyone mired in negativity. She sometimes she won it appeared to be because she'd run out of other options. Is this fascinating, or what?
"Rolls Eyes. . . Whatever!"
But we continued to love Lindsay through all of that. It was partly because she was painfully self-conscious about her size and appearance in spite of her awesome talent and achievements, and partly because she has a sharp wit, a tart tongue, and a willingness to speak her mind. And we loved her because she could never run fast enough or hard enough to escape her own greatness. It kept punching through.
Of course, there is an entirely different if less intriguing way to look at this. For Lindsay was also a player who had severe and conspicuous limitations that didn't prevent her from compiling a record that will be acknowledged in the International Tennis Hall of Fame long after the vivid memories of her struggles and issues have faded away. Lindsay was one of the most gifted ball-strikers ever to grace the game. Sure, the service motion was awkward, but the groundstrokes were like silk, fired with uncanny accuracy and depth. They were utterly grooved and held up remarkably well under pressure, despite all the things that can go wrong when there's as much arm and body involved as there is for Lindsay.
Yesterday, my fellow Senior Editor Jon Levey wandered into my office and we got to talking about Lindsay. Jon thinks Lindsay is the ultimate testament to the coaching genius of Robert Lansdorp, the SoCal guru who also left his fingerprints all over (among others) Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova, and Tracy Austin.
"It's like Robert knew all along what Lindsay's shortcomings were," Jon said, "And he designed strokes and a game that would minimize them. It's like he said, you can't afford to get into long rallies, so this is how you need to hit the ball and where you need to put it. And it was good enough to get her multiple slams, and to Number One a bunch of times."
Before Lindsay's last match at the U.S. Open last September, I brought up Agassi's farewell and asked her if she had thought about how she wanted to leave the game.
No, I mean, he is one of a kind. He's remarkable. You know, I think how he did it was extremely courageous, and I don't think I would ever be that courageous in terms of saying something like he did. I think it would be much more private, and I don't think I'll necessarily know until it's over.
Well, now she knows, because it's over. We'll miss you, Lindsay.
"Rolls eyes*. . . Whatever!"