Lindsay Davenport has gotten to this airy place at the top of the women's professional tennis rankings almost without notice, but not without effort.
She was never singled out as the phenom. Never pointed to as the one most likely. But last month, she pried the No. 1 ranking away from Martina Hingis, 18, and not only became the first American-born woman to hold the ranking since Chris Evert in 1985, but also, at 22, the second-oldest woman to earn the No. 1 ranking for the first time.
"I'm a great example for kids," Davenport says. "I think I've shown people you can be normal and friendly, that you don't have to be tennis-driven to be the best in the world. I've never gotten caught up in 'I'm a great person because I play tennis.'
"Tennis doesn't have to consume you. I sort of prove you don't have to be the one stereotype. You can be yourself."
But now that Davenport has reached the top, she says she is eager to stay there.
"What Pete Sampras has done is so impressive," she says, referring to the men's champion, who is trying to retain his No. 1 year-end ranking for a record-setting sixth straight year. "Staying at No. 1 is the hardest thing. I'm definitely not satisfied by just getting here. I want to make the most of everything I've worked hard to achieve."
Yesterday, she lost a two-hour final to Steffi Graf, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, in the Advanta Championships in Philadelphia. Despite the loss, Davenport can still be assured of finishing the season at No. 1 if she wins her first-round match at the Chase Championships in New York this week. If that happens, second-ranked Hingis would not be able to garner enough points to overcome Davenport, even if Hingis wins the Chase event.
"I've learned a lot over the past couple years," Davenport says. "The difference is being able to win week in and week out. It's winning when you're not playing well. It's believing you're really good and having the confidence to win. I've learned that you can't worry about things -- about one bad game or one bad set."
Knowing all that, she says, will make playing in New York easier. And, if it makes Davenport feel better, the women who have made it to the top of women's tennis have tended to stay there. Since 1975, when computer rankings were first kept, just seven other women have been No. 1.
To join them, Davenport hired coach Robert Van't Hof in 1996 and committed herself to the game. In September, Davenport won her first Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open.
"She simply made up her mind not to be out of shape," says Van't Hof. "She was 20 years old. She was maturing and realized if this was what she was going to be doing for the next nine or 10 years, she would put everything into it."
What that has meant is playing tennis three hours a day, spending 45 minutes every other day lifting weights and running endless sprints. Van't Hof also mixes the regimen by having Davenport, 6 feet 2, 175 pounds, jump rope, run stairs and bike around town.
"She appears to be a happy-go-lucky girl," says her coach. "No one would know by just looking at her or talking to her -- she's very pleasant, very outgoing -- just how competitive she is.
"The competitiveness is inside. It's what brings the best players to the top. It's what makes champions special."
Davenport says it took at least a year and a half before she felt all the work she was doing "was making a tremendous difference." Not only did it change her results on the court, but also her lifestyle.
Right after high school, when she was overweight and didn't know what to do with her spare time, mostly she was bored and watched soap operas.
Now, her daily routine continues to be filled with workouts and taking her two Rottweilers, Riley and Zoltan, for long walks twice a day, but her No. 1 ranking has added to the mix demands on her time. More questions about herself. More everything.
Last week at Villanova University, where she was playing in her first tournament in the United States since earning the No. 1 ranking Oct. 12, she faced wall-to-wall television cameras, notebooks and tape recorders. Her every word and thought were sought out and recorded.
And this week in New York, the demands will be even more pressing. Everyone will want a word with No. 1, and the competition on the court will be fierce.
Hingis, who was top-ranked from March 31, 1997, until Davenport moved in, will be there. No. 3 Jana Novotna will be trying to defend the title she won last season.
And former No. 1 Graf, who played a limited schedule this season because of injuries and surgery, will be trying to make the most of the Chase, after having won back-to-back tournaments.
"Personally, I always loved playing the No. 1 player," says Davenport. "I was always hoping for an upset. I've accomplished a lot getting to be No. 1, so if I don't win and I'm not No. 1 at the end of the year, it's still the best year ever.
"But I'm going to work my butt off to stay there."
Top of their game
Only eight women have made it to the top of the computer rankings since the WTA began keeping them in 1975:
Player (age) .. .. .. .. .. Date No. 1
Chris Evert (20) .. .. .. .. ... 11/75
M. Navratilova (21) .. .. .. ... 11/78
Tracy Austin (17) .. .. .. .. ... 4/80
Steffi Graf (18) .. .. .. .. .. . 8/87
Monica Seles (17) .. .. .. .. ... 3/91
A. Sanchez-Vicario (23) .. .. ... 2/95
Martina Hingis (16) .. .. .. .. . 3/97
Lindsay Davenport (22) .. .. ... 10/98
Pub Date: 11/16/98