Davenport was gallant, but defeat just as sure

7/3/2005 - Tennis

WIMBLEDON, England -- Lindsay Davenport was deeply disappointed, but not bitterly disappointed. There is a major difference. And in reminding us of that distinction, showing amazing grace in the aftermath of what could have been a devastating defeat, Davenport also gave us a valuable lesson in what sport at its best is all about.

Venus Williams won a Wimbledon ladies' singles final that was at once enthralling and emotionally gut-wrenching, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7. Her joyous celebration was a spectacle in itself. But Davenport showed there is satisfaction in being part of a majestic, magical piece of tennis history.

Winning is not the only thing.

"It was great and it was exhilarating," Davenport said. "I felt like I played great. I felt like I did everything I wanted to do out there, and I got really close and just didn't win the one or two points that would have won the match for me. I really don't feel like I have anything to hang my head for or be ashamed of. I mean, the girl all of a sudden would make like 10 winners. That's not always the case. She hit some great first serves at crucial times. She really didn't give me a look at any second serves on big points. She hit some great up-the-line winners, came in, and just took it away from me every time I got up."

Davenport served once for match. She had a point for the championship she won in 1999 on Williams' serve at 4-5 in the third set. She was within two points of victory no fewer than nine times. She played through a painful pulled muscle in her back and came agonizingly close to a fourth career Grand Slam singles title that, at age 29, would have meant the world to her.

Probably more than in 2000, when Williams dethroned her at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.

And yet, Davenport was able to put it all into proper perspective within minutes after walking off Centre Court with the runner-up trophy. She expressed real empathy and admiration for the fellow Southern Californian who wanted the prize just as much, and had one shot more in her holster.

Davenport knows there can only be one victor in any tennis match, but in a real sense, this was one of those rare and special occasions when there really was no loser.

"It's tough to really put it into words right now. Obviously I'm extremely disappointed. But I feel like I gave it everything I had out there, and every time the chips were down for Venus, she played unbelievable," Davenport said. Her voice was upbeat, her body language sincere. There was no hint of a good cry that would have been perfectly understandable under the circumstances.

It was the longest ladies' singles final in Wimbledon history -- 2 hours, 45 minutes, or 17 minutes more than Margaret Court's 14-12, 11-9 classic win over Billie Jean King 35 years ago in 1970. Certainly it was one of the most dramatic: Masterpiece Theater on the Centre Court. Not since 1935, when Helen Wills Moody beat archrival Helen Jacobs, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, had a woman come back to win the final from match point down.

But at the end, when tears might have fallen like English rain, Davenport smiled and put her arm around Williams' shoulder. Instead of shaking hands at the net, they embraced, like spent prize fighters at the conclusion of a title bout that took both participants to their limits, but only one beyond.

The gesture was perfect, because forevermore these two will be linked in the memory bank of wonderful Wimbledon moments.

"I felt like she deserved it," Davenport said, explaining her feelings as they hugged. "I mean, she deserved to win, absolutely. She fought hard and she played well when she was down. She was great."

Listening to Davenport, you had to marvel at her composure. Logic suggested she should be dejected at coming so close to a prize she has dreamed about often. It would be a mistake to conclude that Williams wanted it more. At this stage of their careers -- both having worked themselves back into fitness and form after injuries, both defying the conventional wisdom that major titles were beyond them now -- they probably wanted it equally. Nobody choked in this match. They lifted each other's level to heavenly heights in the final set. Davenport could accept the outcome with extraordinary equanimity.

"I just don't feel I have anything to be ashamed of," she repeated, though you would have to be witless and shameless to think she did. "I mean, I'm really disappointed. Obviously, when you get that close to winning Wimbledon and it doesn't happen. But someone deserves it more than I do. She was too good."

You understood now why Davenport is so respected and popular among her peers. She is ranked No. 1 in the world, and every other player wants to occupy that throne, but many will tell you if they can't win a particular major championship, they would like to see Lindsay take the title.

After a match so superb, couldn't she allow herself to think they both deserved it?

"Well, it's never happened in a tennis match," Davenport said, smiling at the harsh reality. "I wish it could have. It would have been nice, I guess."

Would she at least be able to look back and think that although she didn't get the champion's plate -- the "Venus Rosewater Dish," which now has this Williams' name on it again, as it did in 2000 and 2001 -- that she also owns a place in Wimbledon history?

"No," said Davenport, champion of the U.S. Open in 1998, Wimbledon in 1999, and the Australian Open in 2000. "I would rather have a fourth [Grand Slam] title. It's so hard. It's just so new. It's only been an hour or whatever.

I'm sure as time goes by … But I feel like I played great. There's not many times when I feel like I've played well and I haven't won. So that's where I give her a lot of credit. But it's tough when you work so hard to achieve something like this, and it just doesn't quite work out."

Seldom has a vanquished finalist at Wimbledon come closer to the ideal expressed in Kipling's oft-quoted lines that traditionally have greeted players entering the Centre Court: "If you can meet triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…" Davenport also made us think of another English poet, Robert Browning, who wrote that a man's (or woman's) reach should exceed his (or her) grasp, or what's a heaven for?

Willliams and Davenport reached for the sky and gave us a heavenly final.

In the end, Venus was burning bright. She bounded up and down for the longest time, seemingly hyperventilating with joy, the fast-twitch fibers that had carried to so many apparent winners and gotten them back over the net still working overtime. And as the champion leapt, the runner-up might have wept. Davenport did not. She was disappointed, but not bitterly so.

She was the definitive portrait of the gallant, gracious runner-up. She is 6-foot-2, and perhaps has never stood taller. Don't anybody dare call her a loser.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.