Davenport's quiet accomplishments

Lindsay Davenport has withdrawn from Wimbledon. While her career might be nearing its conclusion, Bonnie DeSimone writes we should appreciate the Californian's quiet greatness.

Updated: June 22, 2006, 11:31 AM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

Lindsay Davenport's withdrawal from Wimbledon because of a lingering back injury comes just a year after her scintillating final there with Venus Williams. Davenport's scratch, extending three months of inactivity, was such a foregone conclusion that when it came across on the wires, it seemed like old news.

Davenport turned 30 earlier this month. She turned down an interview request through her agent, Tony Godsick, who said she hopes to play again at Stanford in late July.

The latest news was a reminder of two things: how quickly an older athlete's fortunes can turn, and how much Davenport's remarkable career might have been taken for granted now that it hangs in the balance.

Lindsay Davenport
Despite an injury-plagued season, Lindsay Davenport started 2006 ranked No. 1 in the world and also won her 700th career match.
The fact that Davenport wasn't a high-maintenance personality tended to obscure her accomplishments. It became a cliché to write about how darn normal and well-adjusted Davenport was compared to the sea of neurosis around her on the women's side of the sport, replete with physical and mental burnouts and Svengali-esque coaches and dads.

Before she won the U.S. Open in 1998, many reviews of Davenport's play focused on her appearance: She was too heavy, or did that tall-girl thing of not standing up straight enough. But gosh, she was so darn good-natured, had that sunny Californian cheer to her, you had to like her.

She had the bad luck to chase that Open victory the very September that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were sword fighting through their oh-so-charming home run derby. The dispatches written for newspapers (and many other stories) were buried; Davenport, it seemed, didn't have the Q factor of those huggable ball players. In retrospect, we shouldn't have any doubt about which was the more admirable achievement.

As Davenport marched to the finals, it was entrancing that she had attended her high school prom and that her older sisters had kept her in line. I led one story with the fact that she drove herself from Manhattan to Flushing Meadows every day (albeit in a loaned Mercedes), listening to the radio. No limos for Lindsay.

Her manner seemed as comfortable as her last name. Sit down. Have a chat and a cold one. There was no tragedy lurking in her background, no wackiness, no dark compulsions, no edge to grab onto. Her story was that she didn't have an exotic story. Davenport just worked hard, got fit and got better. She beat Martina Hingis that year by fetching a drop shot she admitted she wouldn't have been able to reach two years before and smacking a match point winner on her mother's birthday. Just … so … nice.

"No one ever called me a prodigy," she said during that tournament. "I was never going to be any good. I think I've maximized what I had. Let people say what they want. Maybe it bothered me a little bit in my early teens, my midteens, but I kind of realized after a certain point, there's no use arguing with it or listening to it."

The latest news was a reminder of two things: how quickly an older athlete's fortunes can turn, and how much Davenport's remarkable career might have been taken for granted now that it hangs in the balance.

It takes discipline and self-belief to shrug and say "whatever." Yet people have had a tendency to mistake Davenport's mellow exterior for some sort of flaw in her competitiveness.

Absolutely nothing about her résumé bears that out. Since 1994, she has finished out of the year-end top 10 only twice and was No. 1 four times, including the last two years. She is only the ninth woman in history to win more than 50 WTA titles. Davenport is an Olympic gold medalist and her $21.5 million in career earnings is second only to Steffi Graf on the all-time list. She just liked to play, and she played a lot: Fed Cup, Olympics, doubles -- where she was ranked world No. 1 -- and mixed doubles.

The cumulative pounding has taken an increasing toll in the last few years. Davenport has played through a number of injuries and shut herself down on other occasions. She missed more than half of the 2002 season after knee surgery and talked about retiring at the end of 2004, then signed up again and played some of the best tennis of her life.

Consistency isn't generally celebrated the way slumps and comebacks are. Davenport might be a more heralded player if she had sulked and been more stingy with her smiles, gained and lost weight again, plunged 100 places in the rankings, vanished inexplicably for a while or made some egregious error in her personal life. She didn't. We became accustomed to her face.

Davenport is willing to go on the record, listing the simple pleasures that make her one of us. "Enjoys doing crosswords, reading magazines, playing with her dogs and being a wife," it says on her official WTA biography.

Put Davenport's stats under the microscope and what pops out are the three Grand Slam singles wins bunched between 1998 and 2000 -- a number that seems low given the length and caliber of her career. She reached four other finals, two in 2000 and two in 2005, including the longest-ever championship match in Wimbledon history, a 2-hour, 45-minute classic that might prove to be the last big burst of light out of this low-key supernova.

We last saw Davenport at Indian Wells, Calif., in March, where she bowed to Hingis in the fourth round. Davenport was matter-of-fact as she told reporters she'd been in a good deal of pain since being diagnosed with a bulging disc. She grimaced slightly as she left her final press conference -- an image she doubtless doesn't want to be her parting imprint.

But if it is, the guess is she'll sleep easy at night. A few days before, she summed things up with her usual straightforwardness:

"I've always said I've been ecstatic with the way my career has gone, and how I've handled things, and the person I've kind of developed into over the last 15 years of doing this kind of crazy job. So, you know, all around, I look at it like a huge success."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.