- Joel Drucker
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Lindsay Davenport had conquered the world, winning big titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open.
But London, New York and Melbourne were thousands of miles away from anything homey for this daughter of the Golden State. On a warm Saturday night just east of her home state's capital, Davenport returned to tennis at a shopping center. It wasn't exactly a page from the gold miners, but it certainly was quintessential California.
Davenport had flown to Sacramento from her Orange County home, the first plane trip she'd taken with her infant son, Jagger.
"He didn't make a sound," Davenport said.
Barely six weeks ago, she'd had a C-section. If Davenport didn't quite feel fit enough for her personal world-class standard, she certainly was more trim than most new mothers dared imagine.
Her return to competition would be an easy go, as Davenport had committed to play one evening of doubles for World Team Tennis' Sacramento Capitals.
But the real questions Saturday weren't about that night's matches but about Davenport's future. Next month, she's playing doubles in New Haven, Conn., with Lisa Raymond. Davenport also is intrigued by the possibility of playing in the 2008 Olympics. One of her first big triumphs came when she earned gold at the '96 Summer Games, and next year represents the 40th anniversary of her father, Wink, playing on the U.S. volleyball team.
Playing singles "is off the table," Davenport said. "I have a long way to go to play singles at the Grand Slam level. And I don't want to go to the U.S. Open just to play doubles. My day doesn't revolve around tennis."
She first played for Sacramento as a 17-year-old in 1993. If Boris Becker's belief that tennis years can be measured as dog years rings true, it would have been easy for Davenport to toss that time in her career out of her memory. But she had embraced the league. WTT played a vital role in Davenport's development -- the young, self-conscious girl learning from veterans and enjoying the cocoon of a team.
So as she concluded her maternity leave, Davenport felt as comfortable as a salesman returning to duty at a regional trade show. The Capitals' coach, Wayne Bryan, had known her since her Southern California junior days. The team's court, dubbed the Allstate Stadium, was located at the end of Westfield Galleria, one of dozens of jumbo-sized malls Davenport had driven in and out of her entire life. North of the court was a Nordstrom.
At heart, WTT is tennis' NASCAR: exquisitely people-friendly. The attendant sounds and smells of summer and sports filled the air, from music such as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to popcorn and kids scrambling for autographs.
But as Davenport noted before taking the court, "It's organized, it's a proper match and I'm looking forward to it."
Not planning to play once her child was born, Davenport had hit only five times while pregnant.
"It's funny," she said. "I was so involved with tennis, but this spring it was fun to watch. I was on bed rest the entire French Open."
But the combination of an early delivery (three weeks) and the convenience of WTT proved irresistible.
"Being a mom doesn't limit me," said Davenport, who at this point is able to keep Jagger nearby while she works out at the gym and on the court.
She took the court and instantly revealed one fundamental principle for world-class players: The swing never vanishes. The legs might slow, the nerves might increase and even the will to compete can dissipate, but the aptitude for shaping and executing a stroke is something a player who's been on the tour will take to the grave. Davenport's swing is one of the sweetest tennis has ever seen, her ability to drive the ball firmly and efficiently a racket-toting version of Tony Gwynn or Tiger Woods.
Warming up with her Capitals mixed doubles partner, Mark Knowles, about to take on her brother-in-law, Rick Leach, and Michaela Pastikova, Davenport whacked her trademark two-hander with ease. Said Bryan: "It's like she never left. Just look how much power she gets, how smooth she strokes the ball."
The set moved briskly. Davenport opened her service game with an ace against Leach. Davenport struck her share of fine ground strokes and was, of course, delighted to be aided by Knowles, one of the five best doubles players in the world.
"It's always been my dream to play with Lindsay," Knowles said just before the match. The two won 5-1 (WTT sets are played to five games) in 17 minutes.
Her women's doubles match went quite fast, too. She was paired with another superb doubles player, Elena Likhovtseva, and they dispatched Pastikova and Lauren Albanese, 5-2. All told, Davenport had played 38 minutes of tennis.
Although Davenport's ground strokes were as well-timed as ever, they invariably lacked the thunderous power that was her trademark. Ditto for her serve. And much to her chagrin, her ability to use her legs and generate power and depth on volleys wasn't quite as proficient. But still, only six weeks after her pregnancy concluded, it was hard to expect much more.
"It was fun, it was good," Davenport said just after the match. "It was always going to be difficult, but considering what I went through just last month, this is pretty good. Reactions were tough, but you get that when you play more."
As she walked to a table and signed autographs for 200 boys and girls, one couldn't help but wonder how much more tennis Davenport can indeed take on. It's quite an asset that her husband, Jon Leach, is a former USC player and in-house hitting partner. Also, as much as Davenport always claimed not to like the constant travel of pro tennis, she's very much a girl who grew into a woman in the tennis world. Her whole life has been spent in player lounges, dining areas and practice courts.
Add to that a penchant for team play -- and America's own shallow women's game -- and it's hard to imagine we won't be seeing more of this future Hall of Famer in 2008.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.
Lindsay Davenport became a first-time mother in June, returned to the court in July and announced she'll play doubles in August. Still, don't expect to see the former No. 1 playing singles anytime soon.