by Steve Flink
Say this for Lindsay Davenport: she has always had excellent timing. How many times have we marveled at her impeccable ground stroke technique? How often have we admired her ability to orchestrate points and send opponents scurrying all over the court while always managing to conserve her own energy? And why is it such a good thing for tennis that she has made a remarkable comeback at 31 after giving birth to her first child in June?
Let me answer the last question first. Davenport was always in the upper regions of the sport before going on maternity leave last September. She had concluded four years as the top ranked woman in the sport, most recently in 2005. She established herself as one of the cleanest ball strikers of this or any era, and the combination of speed and accuracy on her first serve made her tough to break when she was at her best. She had already enjoyed an enormously successful career when she left the game (seemingly for good) a year ago, and could have been content to rest on her laurels. But she must have done some real soul searching during her hiatus from the game, and now has returned to top flight tennis with a renewed sense of vigor and ambition. Having Davenport back in the mix is undoubtedly a big plus for tennis.
The Californian played her first singles event since Beijing in September of 2006 last week in Bali, Indonesia, and would probably have been happy to win a few matches in that event as a stepping stone toward larger achievements in 2008. But, amazingly, as if she had never put the racket down, without skipping a beat, she captured her first title since Zurich in 2006. And not only did Davenport win her first tournament back, but she had a couple of excellent wins as she garnered that crown. In the quarterfinals, she ousted Jelena Jankovic, the woman who has won more matches than anyone else in the women’s game this season, a player ranked No. 3 in the world. Davenport won that battle in three sets. In the final, she came through in another three set clash, this one against Daniela Hantuchova.
Make no mistake about it: that run in Indonesia was no mean feat. To play at that level after giving birth to a boy and being away from the game for so long was a great credit to the discipline, determination and court craft of Davenport. Her lack of match play should have cost Davenport significantly in her matches with Jankovic and Hantuchova, two seasoned competitors who had every reason to like their chances against the former world No. 1. But getting through those assignments will undoubtedly give Davenport all the encouragement she needs as she moves forward toward what will surely be an intriguing 2008 campaign.
Let’s face it: women’s tennis needs Davenport right now as much, it not more, than Davenport needs the game. I’m not saying that it has been a bad year for the women’s game, but only Justine Henin has played with unrelenting consistency. The season began with Serena Williams coming out of nowhere to win the Australian Open. Henin then captured Roland Garros before a revitalized Venus Williams was victorious at Wimbledon. And then Henin reasserted her authority by coming through at the U.S. Open. Three different women have secured the four major titles in 2007, providing drama for the fans, keeping everyone immersed in the game all season long.
On the other hand, no one new has stepped up to take a Grand Slam championship this season. And somehow Svetlana Kuznetsova— despite a mediocre season— has moved up to No. 2 in the world. To be sure, she made it to the U.S. Open final which was a fine accomplishment. But, no matter what the rankings suggest, she is not the second best player in the world. Maria Sharapova (now No. 4) or Jankovic should be No. 2, but Sharapova has had severe shoulder problems and has not served up to full capability for large portions of this year. And Jankovic, aside from a semifinal appearance at Roland Garros, has not fared well in the majors.
That brings me back to my initial point about Davenport and her timing. She could not have chosen a better moment to walk back into the competitive arena in singles. The guess here is that she had looked around the landscape of her profession and realized that there is a lot of instability among the leading players. She has seen that there just might be an opening for her to add some luster to an already shining record. She recognized that it was still possible for her to perform prodigiously. Here is a woman who won the U.S. Open in 1998, Wimbledon in 1999, and the Australian Open in 2000. Those three majors will virtually guarantee Davenport a home at the International Tennis Hall of Fame some day.
But she undeniably wants at least one more “Big Four” crown in her collection. After she won her last big one in Melbourne seven years ago, Davenport was beaten four times in Grand Slam tournament finals, bowing against Venus Williams in the 2000 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, coming up short against Serena Williams in the 2005 Australian Open championship match, falling once more against Venus Williams at the 2005 Wimbledon. In the last of those encounters, Davenport had a championship point on the lawns at the All England Club, only to be stranded helplessly as Venus ripped a bold backhand winner into the clear.
So perhaps she left the game last year not totally fulfilled. Now she has returned with gusto, and perhaps she will become the first mother since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980 to claim a major crown. In Indonesia, Davenport demonstrated that she can probably contend again at the Grand Slam events. It looks as if her timing might be right on target.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com
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