Davenport may no longer be No. 1, but she's a winner

Updated: January 31, 2006, 5:14 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

Lindsay Davenport has been the improbable No. 1, the consummate grown-up in the culture of drama queens and pinup girls and social misfits, the big girl championing the cause for normalcy. No insane parents, no fashion agenda. Davenport was the American kid who would never go away, never back down, never fade into the sunset of a sport in which no one ever gave her a shot to have such staying power.

Lindsay Davenport
Lindsay Davenport couldn't get past the quarterfinals in Melbourne.

After dragging along on a bad ankle at the Australian Open, Davenport lost in three sets to Justine Henin-Hardenne. With that quarterfinal loss, Davenport could drop out of a world ranking that no one ever expected her to arrive at so late in the game, smack in the middle of a tennis era that was never supposed to find her on top.

"[Staying No. 1] is not up in my priority list," Davenport said in Melbourne. "I'll be playing fewer tournaments this year, so it's inevitable."

Easing back with her 30th birthday this year, taking a peek at what else is out there in the world for her, perhaps she'll never get back to No. 1. So be it. Of course, the game had supposedly passed her by several years ago, with the strength and speed of the Williams sisters promising to make her game obsolete.

No, Davenport hasn't won a Grand Slam since the Australian Open in 2000. And no, she didn't beat Venus Williams in that three-seat tie-break epic at Wimbledon in 2005, the kind of athletic performance Davenport wasn't supposed to deliver in that big girl's body. If that's your measure of her legacy, you're missing the point on Lindsay Davenport.

Unlike the rest of the women on tour, she wasn't an anointed teen sensation, just an unaffected girl turning into the rarest of commodities on the American scene: a mature, rational and aware grown-up on tour. Davenport has always had an endearing, wry and self-effacing sense of humor in a sport full of self-absorption and self-importance.

There's a generation of goofball tennis kids who could learn some lessons from the Davenport family, who supported Lindsay's career but never let it consume the family dynamic. They miss more tournaments than they make. Her parents divorced when she was a child, but her mother and sisters never made Lindsay feel like tennis was the epicenter of the family. She never had to play for them -- just herself.

Everything she heard as a tall, clumsy kid growing up on the bluffs of Palos Verdes, Calif., the nasty digs, the immature giggles of peers, the strange glances, always drove Davenport. She was 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. She was a big girl. She could hit the ball, but she didn't move so well. When the sport changed, when the Williams sisters brought a blend of power and speed that had never been seen before, too many young players in the sport bemoaned the timing of having grown up in this era of tennis.

But Davenport went back to work, got fitter, faster and came back a different player. She pushed past knee injuries, past crises of confidence, to reach No. 1 in the world. There was always a glamour girl on the way to unseat her, but Davenport never quit. She hasn't dominated women's tennis with Grand Slams, but year-in, year-out consistency. She's a study in staying power, in life balance, which is something a whole lot of parents and players could use as a model.

"When people are young, they say, 'They're going to be great,' Davenport once said. "No one ever said anything about me. I was never a prodigy. I was never going to be any good. ... No one ever said when I was growing up I was ever going to be any good or get to a Grand Slam final. I wasn't expected to do anything. I'm not the most unbelievable athlete.

"I'm not anything."

She made herself something, something extraordinary. Everything turned for Davenport back at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she learned to let the pressure stop consuming her, turning deaf to the digs and doubters. She won the gold medal in '96, then the U.S. Open in 1998, and the Australian in 2000. Since then, she hasn't won a Grand Slam, but has kept reaching enough quarters, semis and finals to fight her way to No. 1 in the world with her 30th birthday on the way this summer.

In the land of divas and drama, there's the moment I'll always remember about Davenport, all the way back in 1996 at the main press center in Atlanta. Davenport had come downtown for a television interview, a gold medallist without an entourage, without security, without pretense. As she passed through the lobby's metal detectors, the alarm sounded. The guards didn't recognize her.

"Empty your pockets, ma'am," a guard said.

The security handed Davenport one of those plastic buckets, the kind that you drop your car keys into at the airport. So, she reached into one of her front pockets, dropped her gold medal into the dish and passed through screen doorway again.

Her whole career has been a celebration of that kind of normalcy, the validation of a mother's vision that no greater tennis glory and money would be worth handing her child over to the grind of the junior tennis circuit as a young teen. Ann Davenport wouldn't let Lindsay move across the country to a tennis academy, insisting that Lindsay would be home for her senior prom and high school graduation.

"I was the one putting my knuckles into her back, telling her to stand up straight, don't slouch," Ann once told me. "I always told her, 'You can't help that you're tall.'"

The Davenports never wanted their daughter raised by some wackjob tennis coach far from home. They instilled the values of confidence and belief in her, not leaving it to some raving lunatic with sun-dried skin and an oversized racket. And it shows.

"You'd always see her shoulders slump, her head drop," her older sister Shannon said a longtime ago. "Those were always moments I wanted to call a timeout, go down on the court, and tell her, 'Come on, you can do this. Come on, you can do this.'"

This wasn't a family that told her she had to do this, but that she could do it. There's a difference. If Davenport had walked away from tennis without a championship legacy, life in her household would've gone on. Her tennis wasn't an obsessive family crusade, but something that gave young Lindsay self-esteem. It was something worth the commitment to the trying times that came with competing.

Now, Lindsay Davenport has laughed last and laughed loudest. Leaving Australia, she'll probably lose her world's No. 1 ranking. So it goes. Looking back, how did she ever get it? How did she ever keep it? That's a lesson a lost generation of tennis parents and prodigies ought to study and ultimately try out for themselves.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record in New Jersey and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His national best selling book, "The Miracle of St. Anthony," is available in paperback.

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