Strength beyond strokes

Tennis: Lindsay Davenport, ranked No. 2 in the world, seems to have it all now, but to get it she has had to dig deep for reserves of physical and, especially, mental toughness.

November 23, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

When tennis fans see Lindsay Davenport walk onto the court at Baltimore Arena tonight in the Chevy Chase Bank Tennis Challenge, they will be looking at a mature and mentally strong woman.

Davenport is the No. 2 player in the world, but the sting of criticism isn't so far in her past that she can't remember it.

"I used to get ripped on all the time," said Davenport, who defeated Martina Hingis for the Chase Championships title Sunday. "The media are so quick to take issue, and they do it without knowing all the personal things going on in a person's life."

She was a Top 10 player by the age of 17, but she was tall, chunky and slow. She had seen her ranking rise to No. 10 and then No. 5, but she could never get over the hump.

"I was never in shape when I was in the Top 10 in those days," she said. "People were always criticizing me for that and for not competing well. It gave me a good grip on my flaws. And mentally, I became stronger."

But that doesn't mean Davenport, 23, hasn't always been mentally strong. Even now, she said, people have a misconception about her.

"They see me as insecure, but I've always been very strong," Davenport said. "But when I was 17 and 18, my family was falling apart. I was overweight, my parents were in the midst of getting divorced. I had bigger problems than just tennis."

It's a long way from those days to these.

Tonight, Davenport and No. 12 Anna Kournikova will play in the featured singles match, and the two will pair off with Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick and outfielder Brady Anderson in the Orioles Challenge Match.

Davenport, who will team with Bordick, said she has been hitting the tennis ball with Anderson, her neighbor in Newport Beach, Calif.

"I have to say, Brady has improved a lot," she said of Anderson, who dates tennis pro Amanda Coetzer, travels to many of the WTA events and hits with Coetzer and other WTA players throughout the year.

Davenport has also improved a lot during the past three or four years, and there is no doubt that she is one of the sport's best examples of what determination and hard work can accomplish.

She said she is "amazed" by how far she has come. Tucked away in her resume is the 1996 Olympic gold medal, the 1998 U.S. Open title, the 1998 No. 1 year-end ranking and the 1999 Wimbledon crown.

"I was talking to my coach [Robert van't Hof] the other day, and I told him I've accomplished everything I've ever dreamed of -- and more. I never thought I'd win Wimbledon," Davenport said.

"That's not to say I don't still want to win every event I'm in, but still it all really does amaze me.

"I've learned so much in this game. At 20, when my game started turning around, it was almost nice to know I had turned it around in the face of all the stuff that was going on and being said.

"And I don't regret for one minute not having attacked my tennis deficiencies earlier. Earlier, I had so much else on my mind."

She said she is still the same person she was when she first came on tour, a personality trait she believes has come naturally. But if it hadn't, she leaves no doubt that she would work to make it that way.

"I try not to be very different," she said. "I don't need a lot of people around me. I'm very low-key, and I try to be even more low-key.

"I admire the way Patrick Rafter has handled his success; he's still just a great guy. And Martina [Hingis] is pretty good-natured and funny."

Davenport's opponent tonight, Kournikova, is also good-natured, and Davenport said Kournikova has changed a lot since she first came on tour, having "loosened up and is enjoying playing more. And she's getting along better with other players, too."

Davenport and Kournikova haven't played each other too often -- the series is 2-2. Kournikova won the last time the two played, in April in Amelia Island, Fla., 6-4, 6-1.

"Most of our encounters have been on clay," Davenport said. "She has great shots and can be very tough. But I like the idea of getting to play someone different. And this match with Anna indoors will be totally different."

A year ago, Davenport volunteered to play here at the last minute to fill in for the then-injured Steffi Graf. She beat Jana Novotna, to the delight of the crowd, which seemed to form an immediate attachment to her.

"I really had a great time at this event last year," Davenport said. "There were about 8,000 people, and that's a lot bigger than most of the charity tournaments we do. And then they mixed it in with the Orioles and the Legends, all that stuff. It was so much fun."

However, she said she didn't arrive in town until match day and didn't get to see much of the city. This time, she has worked to remedy that.

She took a train here yesterday from the Chase Championships in New York, did a little sightseeing and then attended last night's pre-tournament reception and silent auction at the Harbor Court Hotel.

Schedule 7 p.m.: Salomon Smith Barney Legends Match, featuring Lori McNeil, Brian Gottfried, Johan Kriek and Ilana Kloss, followed by the featured singles match between No. 2 Lindsay Davenport and No. 12 Anna Kournikova, followed by the Orioles' Challenge Match, with outfielder Brady Anderson and Kournikova facing shortstop Mike Bordick and Davenport.

Challenge facts

What: Chevy Chase Bank Tennis Challenge

Where: Baltimore Arena

When: Tonight, 7

Tickets: $9 to $80, available at arena box office or by calling 410-347-2010 or 410-481-SEAT.

Benefits: Baltimore Community Foundation and area children's charities.

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