by Charles Bricker
Sun-Sentinel (May 9, 2004)
While most of the rest of the top female players were battling through Berlin or pushing on to Rome last week, Lindsay Davenport was home in Laguna Beach, Calif., driving herself as hard as she has in her 12-year professional career.
There's another Grand Slam title in that 6-foot-2 inch body, though it's not the French Open. It's Wimbledon, where she won the second of her three majors, that is in her sights, and the U.S. Open beyond that.
She's not leaving for Europe until this week, and she'll play only one clay event, at Strasbourg (May 17-23), the week prior to the big one in Paris.
"The French is not something I put a lot of emphasis on or think about. There's just something about Roland Garros," she said, interrupting herself with that infectious half-laugh that is one of the great charms of her amiable personality. "Some places I just walk in and love it.
"Not Roland Garros."
She's had some gilded moments on clay. The first of her 40 titles, at Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1993, was on clay. Her latest title, at Amelia Island a month ago, was on dirt.
She has won 76 percent of her clay-court matches and, in 1998, reached the final four at the French.
But she has never been fully comfortable on that surface. "At the '98 French, I remember going out there against Arantxa [Sanchez Vicario] in the semis, and I probably didn't think I could win," she admitted. And she didn't.
Oddly, though, the French Open might have been responsible for one of her greatest triumphs. A year later, she fought past 17-year-old Justine Henin in the second round at Paris, dominated Jennifer Capriati in the round of 16 and went three sets with eventual champion Steffi Graf in the quarters.
"That was my best French Open," Davenport said. "I had a tough draw, and it brought me a lot more confidence, though it was never so much confidence that I felt, `I can win this tournament right now.'"
It was a springboard. Four weeks later, in one of the great serving performances in the history of women's tennis, Davenport won Wimbledon by defeating Graf 6-4, 7-5. Graf would play only one more match, just before the U.S. Open, but retire with an injury and then retire from tennis.
A year ago, retirement was not far from Davenport's thoughts, as she endured the pain of Morton's Neuroma, an irregularly growing nerve that attacks feet.
"If you had asked me last year if I could win another Slam, I didn't really believe it. This year ... I've been working so hard off the court. Another Slam? I'd like to say you can never say never."
Despite a dozen years on the WTA Tour, Davenport is only 27 years old -- hardly old enough to be called the elder stateswoman of women's tennis. Yet, that's what she is. No one on the tour speaks with such forces or sense as Davenport.
When Larry Scott was close to being hired as CEO of the WTA a year ago, she publicly voiced her concerns about bringing in someone from the men's tour. After 12 months of Scott's leadership, however, Davenport also is quick to praise him.
"I do get that feeling," she said of her unofficial stateswoman status. "When there are political issues, I'm the one speaking out. It's amazing to me that people want to hear my opinion. But I've been out there 12 years.
"I was always kind of an intellectual girl in high school. I always read a lot about issues."
She brings political savvy to the women's tour in the way Todd Martin brings it to the men's tour, and it's not surprising they're friends.
"I went to Todd's wedding, and he's a great, great guy," she said. "I like the way he takes his time with detailed answers. I wouldn't mind being compared to him at all."
A year into her own marriage to Jon Leach, who is the brother of multiple Grand Slam doubles titlist Rick Leach, Davenport is pain-free and smarter about her scheduling. In past years she's played up to 20 tournaments in a season. She might play 15 this year.
Like Pete Sampras, she'll never win the French Open. But on a fast surface, and especially Wimbledon, she can take the Williams sisters to the wall.
Davenport will arrive at Strasbourg with a 22-3 record and titles this year at Tokyo and Amelia Island. She's ranked No. 4 behind Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo.