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Standing Tall Lindsay Davenport was head and shoulders above the crowd at the U.S. Open and, for the first time in her life, loved every minute of it

Sept. 21, 1998
Sept. 21, 1998

Table of Contents
Sept. 21, 1998

Home Run Chase
Baseball [bonus Piece]

Standing Tall Lindsay Davenport was head and shoulders above the crowd at the U.S. Open and, for the first time in her life, loved every minute of it

The big girl came running. Martina Hingis had chipped this
looping, desperate drop shot, and Lindsay Davenport charged in.
She moved easily, light on her feet almost, and waited for the
ball, the moment, to bounce to her level. This was the kill. It
was 3:15 p.m. on a blazing New York Saturday, and she had just
carried a 15-stroke rally, six years of searching, a generation
of American hopes and the 1998 U.S. Open final on her back to the
net. But Davenport wasn't out of breath. She hammered a backhand,
and the ball launched off her racket into open space. Hingis, the
No. 1 player in the world, didn't even swing at it. Davenport
began to scream, and the chair umpire declared, "Game, set and
match, Davenport, 6-3, 7-5," but their voices got swallowed by
the wave of happy noise coursing through Arthur Ashe Stadium. It
was a good dream and an old nightmare all at once. Everyone was
looking at the big girl now.

This is an article from the Sept. 21, 1998 issue

"I don't really think I can say how it feels for me," Davenport
told the crowd minutes later during the awards ceremony. "I never
thought I'd win it here."

Who did? Women's tennis had inspired plenty of overheated
expectations for 1998, but few saw the Grand Slam season ending
this way. This was the year when Hingis was supposed to
consolidate her reign as the next Chris Evert, when Venus and
Serena Williams would begin their loudly proclaimed conquest of
the world, when Anna Kournikova would break out as a supermodel
in sneakers. This year's Open was supposed to be the playground
for the look-at-me generation, not a 22-year-old woman whose wish
for the longest time was to go unnoticed. "I wasn't a perfect
thing at 17," Davenport said last Saturday evening. "I didn't
have confidence. I was hunched over and real embarrassed, and I
didn't want to be in the limelight. But it changed over time. The
last couple of years I've gained a lot of confidence. That's the
most exciting thing: how much I've had to change to win."

Such an unexpected turn makes perfect sense at Flushing Meadows.
Buffeted this year by thunderstorms, heat waves, temperatures in
the 50s and a constant wind swirling through Ashe Stadium, the
U.S. Open served its usual role as the sport's fun-house mirror,
exaggerating frailties, trends, judgments and failures. The usual
suspects--Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Steffi Graf--suddenly
seemed tired and adrift. Number 1 Pete Sampras, coming off a
Wimbledon title, pulled up lame in his semifinal against
defending champion Patrick Rafter, raising eyebrows and questions
when he lost to Rafter for the second time in four weeks. Then
after Rafter followed with a near-perfect 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0
dismantling of fellow digger Mark Philippoussis in Sunday's Spice
Boy final, it wasn't hard to imagine a new era of rivalries
energizing the men's game.

Although the astonishingly talented Philippoussis may yet prove
his New York run to be just the latest in a series of teases, no
one can say he doesn't have a role model. After Rafter won here
last year, he fell into a funk culminating in John McEnroe's
musing at the French Open that he could well be a "one-Slam
wonder." At the time, Rafter says, "I thought he was probably
right." But a mighty run through the hard-court summer, with two
tournament victories in August, boosted his confidence, and
Rafter tore through the Open's second week so smoothly that it
was clear he's already comfortable with his place as the sport's
newest superstar. He committed only five unforced errors in the
final and no longer has any qualms about serving notice on
Sampras. "These last few months have really scared me," Rafter
said as he rode into Manhattan on Sunday night. "People ask me if
I can be Number 1 in the world, and the answer is, 'Yeah, it's
possible.' I never would've said that at this time last year. But
I've seen a lot of things go down. If I can repeat at the U.S.
Open, then anything can happen."

Believe it. Before this summer Lindsay Davenport was nobody's
idea of a tennis champion, much less a carefree force who could
bull through the draw without dropping a set, prove herself
cooler under pressure than the usually icy Hingis and threaten to
make the rest of 1998 a battle for No. 1 with all the intrigue of
the men's dogfight (Davenport trails Hingis by 146 points; Rafter
is within 440 of Sampras). When Davenport was a child, no one
dubbed her America's next great player, but here she is now: the
first U.S.-born woman to win the Open since Evert in '82. "No one
ever said anything about me," Davenport said after dismantling
Venus Williams 6-4, 6-4 in the semis. "I was never a prodigy."

Standing 6'2 1/2" and en route to eventually tipping the scales at
200 pounds, Davenport broke onto the scene late and large in
1993, a 16-year-old baseliner with refreshingly balanced
priorities but neither the mobility nor the will to challenge for
major titles. The product of 6'8" Wink and 5'10" Ann Davenport,
Lindsay was at the time still adjusting to a nearly six-inch
growth spurt over the previous two years. She'd transferred from
Chadwick High in Palos Verdes, Calif., to Murrieta Valley High
that year, but it wasn't until she beat Gabriela Sabatini a few
months later in the Virginia Slims of Florida that anyone at
school knew she played tennis. "I always tried to hide the fact
that I was an athlete," Davenport said. "I just wanted to be
normal."

Tennis being the closest thing sports has to a gossipy,
clique-ridden high school, players made fun of Davenport's body
behind her back. She hunched over, bent a knee, wore
flats--anything to look shorter. Ann would poke her in the back to
remind her to stand up straight. She was a fine volleyer, but
nothing draws more attention, and risks more humiliation, than
patrolling the net, so she stuck to the baseline. Opponents
learned to drop shot her--as Hingis did at match point--because
they knew she wouldn't come in. "I was embarrassed to," Davenport
said. "I wouldn't have gotten that ball a couple of years ago."

By the end of 1995 she was miserable. She envied the way Venus,
6'1 1/2" and proud of it, carried herself. Her parents' 28-year
marriage had crumbled, her coaching was in flux, and when,
heavier than ever, she lost a first-round match in the WTA Tour
Championships that November because of back trouble and dropped
out of the Top 10, Davenport knew it was time to get in shape.
She hired former tour pro Robert Van't Hof, a longtime adviser,
to travel with her and oversee her training regimen. She began
running sprints. She dropped 30 pounds over the next two years,
and as her self-consciousness diminished, she found herself
closing out matches instead of panicking. She began picking up
big wins this year--against Hingis in Tokyo and Graf at Indian
Wells--then went on a blistering roll through the hard-court
season, winning three tournaments and becoming the tour's hottest
player.

"Before she would be very moody; you would just see on her face
that she was not happy with what she was doing, and she would
give up much easier," Hingis said last Saturday. "She's mentally
so much stronger."

It's a startling reversal. Davenport dictated play throughout the
final, attacking constantly, pinning Hingis behind the baseline
with deep, powerful strokes, pressuring with an unexpected
command of her volleys. When she lost three straight games and a
4-2 lead in the second set, there was every reason to expect an
old-time Davenport collapse. Instead, Hingis fell apart. Serving
to send the match into a third set, she fell to 0-40 and then
double-faulted with a second serve that dropped into the net like
a brick. Davenport handled things from there, holding her serve
and then breaking Hingis, but that break at 4-5 only confirmed
what had been suspected all summer: With underwhelming results
here and at the French Open and Wimbledon, the Hingis-led youth
movement has stalled.

"Last year everything was like a game for me, new and fun," said
the 17-year-old Hingis, who nearly won the Grand Slam last year
but now hasn't won a tour event since May. "I was still like a
kid. This year was more like work. I think my body changed, and
I'm not moving as well. It's not only me. Everybody has to go
through that stage. Mirjana [Lucic] and Anna, also Venus and
Serena, are having problems with their coordination. You feel
like you can do something, but you can't anymore."

The oddest part of all this is that the player most comfortable
in her own skin right now may be Davenport. Yes, she would still
love to be three inches shorter, and, yes, she turned down a
guest shot on David Letterman because, she said, "he'll make fun
of me." But the fact is, when she began to lose weight, Davenport
was determined to shed the big-girl mentality, too. She still
drops her shoulders at times, but then it will hit her: I look
good, I look better, I should be happy to be tall.

She's working at it. She's even getting a little cocky. Davenport
long had a superstition: Never hold a trophy over your head.
Whenever she won a tournament, she held the plate or cup against
her ear or chest. Over your head was for the big time, she
thought, not doubles or some rinky-dink tournament. Over your
head was for Grand Slam singles. Only her coach knew this.

So when she took the Open cup on Saturday, the sunlight glinting
off the silver, Davenport stepped toward the scrum of
photographers for the obligatory photo op and looked up. There in
her box were Van't Hof, Ann, her two sisters, her niece. She
began to raise the trophy above her head, but before she could
extend her arms, Van't Hof dropped his face in his hands, and
Davenport's eyes went blind with tears. Still she pushed the
trophy high over her head. The crowd kept clapping, and she stood
up straight, the biggest woman in New York.

COLOR PHOTO: CARYN LEVY OLDER AND WISER Unlike the current Brat Packers, Davenport says, "I wasn't perfect at 17. I was hunched over and real embarrassed." [Lindsay Davenport playing tennis]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN "If I can repeat at the U.S. Open," says Rafter,"then anything can happen." [Patrick Rafter playing tennis]