At 28, Davenport's fit for world No. 1 ranking

Healthy again, veteran faces Sharapova tomorrow

Tennis

December 16, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

When Lindsay Davenport arrived on the pro tennis scene, she was a sweet, pudgy child, still in high school, still maturing, still learning what it meant to be a professional athlete.

In those early years, instead of asking Davenport about her weight, reporters tried to get the point across without offending her and asked instead what her plans were for physical conditioning.

Davenport would shrug it off, seemingly missing the meaning of the questions. But all the while, she was storing information and learning.

"I can't speculate on how or why," said Davenport's agent, Tony Godsick. "But she took everything seriously and figured it out. She's just an absolute fitness freak, and her body is her briefcase. Her day is spent making sure her body is in peak condition."

And it's that conditioning that paid off this season in the form of a year without serious injury and match results that have earned her the women's No. 1 ranking at age 28.

Baltimore tennis fans will have the opportunity to see Davenport tomorrow night at the Mercantile Tennis Challenge at 1st Mariner Arena. Her opponent will be world No. 4 Maria Sharapova.

Davenport and Sharapova have met just once, with Sharapova winning a Wimbledon semifinal, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-1, in July on her way to taking her first Grand Slam title.

"I told her, ending the year at No. 1, to earn that position at her age - or at any age - against competition that arguably has the most depth in women's tennis history is an incredible achievement," Godsick said.

But Davenport, who spoke by phone this week from her home in Laguna Beach, Calif., had a different take on 2004.

"To finish No. 1 without winning a major tournament," she said, "when I look back at 2004, it is one of the most disappointing years I've had. I could have won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open."

Winning Grand Slam tournaments is what she plays for, just like all the best competitors. The fact Davenport won seven tournaments, tying a single-season career high, apparently mattered little.

What she remembered was a hip flexor in the semifinals at the U.S. Open that limited her play against Svetlana Kuznetsova, who went on to win the tournament. And the loss to Sharapova at Wimbledon.

Yet nearly everyone in tennis admires Davenport for her dedication to the game and for her unwavering determination.

"I think Lindsay has had an amazing year," Sharapova said. "To be able to come back from foot and knee surgeries and find that desire and to find a spark in herself again to be No. 1. To do that, after all she has accomplished, I don't think there are many who could.

"Of course she'd want to get back on court. Nearly everyone wants that. But to figure a way to get back to the top, that's very special."

Davenport, a three-time Grand Slam winner, was No. 1 for the first time in 1998 and earned the No. 1 ranking again in 2001. Knee surgery in 2002 dropped her ranking to No. 12, and in 2003 she climbed to No. 5 despite foot surgery in October of that year.

"I never thought she'd be No. 1 this year," said Hall of Famer Pam Shriver, founder of tomorrow night's event. "I just thought physically she'd break down again. But she dedicated herself to it and simply rode her best time of the year, the summer U.S. hard-court season, to the No. 1 ranking.

"It's really something. Lindsay has been around so long and to come back from back-to-back surgeries, she must be very happy because she must have had doubts about just having an injury-free year. I don't think even Lindsay would have predicted she'd be back to No. 1."

In fact, Davenport said she seldom predicts anything, refusing to even look at the full season before it starts.

"But she plans everything," Godsick said. "She travels with a small entourage, a physical therapist, a trainer and a coach. She runs it like a business, and each one of them has their individual responsibilities.

"Some players chase money. Lindsay doesn't. She plans a schedule. It is no accident how many weeks she plays in a row, the length of the flights, the climate. All of it is designed to help her win."

The foot surgery in 2003 gave Davenport time to think about what kind of commitment she wanted to make to the game.

"I never felt like I was fully recovered from the knee before the foot injury happened," she said. "But while I was out with the foot, I figured out I wanted to give it another shot. I worked out how much effort I wanted to put back into it."

Her day, every day, is filled by that decision.

She works with a trainer two hours a day, four days a week, and when she's not with him, she is following her coach's instructions, practicing footwork, doing her weight training and cardio work. Then she hits a few balls.

"In January, I felt healthy, but I never thought at age 28 I'd be playing some of the best tennis of my career," she said. "But then, I got on a great roll and was playing like in years past."

Davenport has no trouble saying she is in the twilight of her career. When she rededicated herself to the game, she said she knew it was for a year or two.

"I'm definitely playing in 2005," she said. "Then we'll see where I stand."

Tennis Challenge

What: Mercantile Tennis Challenge, exhibition matches to raise money for children's charities

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Where: 1st Mariner Arena

Future Legends match: Scoville Jenkins vs. Phillip Simmonds

Feature match: Lindsay Davenport vs. Maria Sharapova

Tickets: $20 to $100, available at Ticketmaster locations or by calling 410-547-SEAT

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