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Venus, Davenport renew rivalry once again

Matthew Cronin / *******************

STANFORD - On Sunday, Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport will slug it out for 23rd time. It's their fourth meeting in the finals of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford and the 11th time they will meet in a final. Venus owns a 12-10 edge in what is certainly one of women's tennis' greatest modern rivalries between two hungry Southern California natives.

They both get up for the matches because they both know they've helped define each other's careers. Lindsay owned Venus from 1997 until the summer of 2000, eating her forehand for breakfast and out-toughing her on the big points.
But in July of 2000, Venus had firmed up her forehand and her head. She was no longer just a superior athlete, she was an equal thinker to her foe, who is four years older. She won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon by burying Davenport in the final.


For the past several years, Venus Williams has had the upper hand on Lindsay Davenport.

A few weeks later, Williams trumped her in straight sets in the Bank of the West final. A month later, Williams jumped on Davenport in the US Open final 6-4, 7-5 in a contest Davenport still believes to this day that she should have won.

"Once she was able to turn the tide against me, she was able to turn it around against everybody else," Davenport said. "She's great and we've had a lot of tough matches. On Sunday, I'm going to have to take a lot of chances and play the big points well."

Davenport and Venus are very cordial now, borderline friendly. That wasn't the case when a stone-faced Venus came on tour in 1997. But they have both matured a lot and now enjoy their on-court confrontations. The 28-year-old Davenport actually says she roots for Venus to do well now, while Williams got starry-eyed when thinking about life on tour without Lindsay, who's almost sure to retire at year's end.

"I'll definitely miss playing her if she decides she wants to retire," the 24-year-old Williams said. "It will be sad."

Sad, indeed. The two match-up tremendously well and have almost always produced high quality matches. Both serve huge, with Williams having a little more firepower and Davenport having better placement. Both have clean backhands, with Venus better on the run and down the line. Davenport still has a slightly better forehand, but both women agree that it was Williams ability to improve that side that keyed her surge to the top. Davenport returns with more ambition, but Williams is far quicker. It usually comes down to who is willing to grab the big points by the jugular.

"When I first came out, she was tough to play against," Williams said. "We had similar games, but I was younger and I didn't play the real important points well. We'd play tough matches, but she'd always one up on me at really crucial moments."

Davenport, who beat Venus in back-to-back Bank of the West finals in 1998 and 1999, hasn't scored a win against Williams since 2000. She's says that it's not only that Venus' forehand has improved, but her mentality when it mattered most.

"As she got better and winning the Slams she started playing the big points better," Davenport said.

Both women take the rivalry very seriously. Venus had an un-Williams-like admission on Saturday when she said that she's very conscious of her record against other big time players. She remembers when she tied her record against Davenport at 10-10 back in San Diego in 2002 after she scorched her 6-2, 6-1, one of the most lopsided defeats of Davenport's career (and a nice bit of revenge for the 6-1, 6-2 defeat Lindsay hung on her in Philadelphia in 1999). Venus also recalls what happened in New Haven some three weeks later, when she had her first chance to one-up Davenport.

"I really stated to notch up my record against her," Venus said. "I really wanted to win the match in New Haven because I wanted to be up on her. I had always been down, and I said, 'I really need this.'" The result was a 7-5 6-0 victory and a prideful record.

Davenport hasn't beaten Venus in three and half years, suffering six straight losses. That's not way for a great player to go out. She and Williams are the only two Slam champs who are playing the Bank of the West, Los Angeles and San Diego in succession. Davenport is acutely aware that if she can't beat Venus, she doesn't have much of a shot against Serena or Sharapova, either.

This year, she owns a more than respectable 36-6 record and two titles, very similar to that of — guess who — Venus, who has a 30-5 record and two titles. But Venus believes she's the better player. In the final, Davenport needs the old fire and steely glare that brought her to No. 1. Does she mentally believe she can really beat Venus again? Maybe.

"I hope so," Davenport said. "She's had an up and down year as well. But she looks like she playing better here than she has in a long time. It will be a good challenge. I'm going to have to step up sooner or later in big matches again."

There's no better time to start than Sunday in Stanford.
 
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