Davenport breathes easy as she rises in rankings Fitness is foundation for winning run that's moved her up to No. 8

August 29, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Lindsay Davenport swept through her second-round match in the U.S. Open, 6-0, 6-4, yesterday, as if nothing would ever disrupt her concentration again.

Then she strolled into the post-match interview to talk about her victory over Henrietta Nagyova, stepped up on the podium and sat down in the chair just vacated by David Nainkin, the player who had upset No. 9 men's seed Wayne Ferreira.

"Oh! Oh! Oh!" she yelped, leaping to her feet and looking at the perspiration-layered chair as if it were a snake. "It's wet! Gross!"

So much for victorious decorum.

It took only a dry towel to alleviate her discomfort -- a small thing when it's measured against the lengths she has gone to to improve her level of comfort on the tennis court.

It's not that Davenport, the eighth-ranked and eighth-seeded player here, is doing more than expected; it's simply that she's doing what others have expected her to do.

An Olympic gold medal and her first victory over Steffi Graf in six attempts on her way to winning the tournament in Manhattan Beach, Calif., two weeks ago, have done great things for Davenport's confidence.

She also is more fit than she has ever been -- and more determined. You know the old line: "a lean, mean, fighting machine."

Davenport laughed.

"Well, I am more relaxed with myself, more confident in myself and I'm moving better," she said. "And all of that has given me a lot of confidence."

Davenport was one of several women's seeds to advance yesterday. No. 2 seed Monica Seles, who was supposed to play 46th-ranked Laurence Courtois last night on Center Court, moved into the third round without swinging her racket. Seles was awarded a walkover when Courtois was forced to withdraw four hours before the match because of a knee-bone inflammation.

Also advancing were No. 4 Conchita Martinez and No. 15 Gabriela Sabatini. Not so lucky was No. 13 Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, who was upset, 6-2, 6-1, by No. 63-ranked Barbara Rittner.

In 1994, Davenport, then 18, was No. 6 in the world and the highest-ranked American woman. It was a time when Seles was not playing and hadn't yet become a U.S. citizen, Mary Joe Fernandez wasn't well and Chanda Rubin hadn't yet appeared on the pro circuit.

"I felt a lot of pressure when I played two years ago," Davenport said. "I was the highest-seeded American and I felt the pressure, more then than now, even though I know people are expecting more from me now because I won the Olympic gold medal."

Two years ago, she was at a disadvantage not because she was young nor because she was tall -- 6 feet 2. The disadvantage came from carrying 165 pounds that resulted in her being slow, slow, slow.

The funny thing was that, in the hyper-critical world of pro tennis, no one wanted to criticize her for it. No one wanted to demand that the bright, good-natured teen-ager shape up. No one would even come out and ask about her weight in the post-match interviews because Davenport was doing all the other, more important things right.

She stayed in high school and got her diploma. She attended her senior prom. Tennis wasn't her whole life, just part of the life of a normal teen-ager.

It wasn't until last December, when Fernandez's coach, Harold Solomon, took her aside and gave her some advice that she started really to look at herself and at her game.

"Ten years from now," said Solomon, "you don't want to look back and say, 'What could I have done?' "

Davenport, whose ranking dropped to 12th last year, thought about that. Thought hard.

"I thought, 'Well, I'm out of school, and I don't want to go back to school right now,' " she said. "I decided I wanted to do well in tennis. I just decided I was going to put it all on the line. And I've tried to do that. So far, it's paid off."

She knew she had to get in better shape to get faster, and credits Robert Van'T Hof, who has been her coach since January, with improving her fitness.

"I didn't diet," she said. "Trust me, I haven't cut out anything. I'm just working harder."

She has dropped 20 pounds, and it shows as she moves around the court. Television commentator John McEnroe noted the other day that she's "still not a racehorse," but her improved movement gives her a new dimension.

"My mobility is one of the main things I've improved," she said. "When I'm not hitting my shots that well, I can still run a few more balls down. It allows me to get in a better position for the ball, so I'm not making as many errors because I'm out of position. That's the one thing that's really given me a lot of confidence this year."

The favorites here are Graf and Seles, co-world No. 1. Davenport is one of the few outsiders who have a chance to give the Open women's final a surprise ending.

"I guess I'm a lot of people's dark horse," she said happily. "Am I my own dark horse? Well, I think if things work out, I think I could win.

"But, I, personally, wouldn't choose me to win, if I was going through the draw and betting with someone. I'd put my money on Steffi or Monica, and cover the bases."

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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