24 June 2001

Brough Scott talks to the American once nicknamed `Dump Truck’ about her hopes for Wimbledon after injury and her battle to stay in shape

Lindsay Davenport, already at 25 a winner of Wimbledon, American and Australian titles not to mention some $12.5 million in prize money, took her comeback match at Eastbourne on Tuesday and talked less about her injured knee than her cancer-stricken doubles partner, Corina Morariu. Could she be in danger of giving sport a good name?

This is the fortnight when we think that we know her and Hingis and Capriati and the Williams sisters and all the rest; that sudden embracing intimacy which only Wimbledon can bring. Davenport, Californian, 6ft 2in,12st 7lb, used to be fat but now isn’t. Won the ’96 Olympic final, the US Open in ’98, the Australian last year. Beat Steffi Graf in the ’99 Wimbledon final, was beaten by Venus Williams last year when suffering from injuries. Lives at Newport Beach, keeps Rottweillers, has an investment banker boyfriend and has kept the same coach for five years. Solid citizen, won’t say anything silly. Who’s on next?

But let’s be serious because so is she. At the end of March, in Miami’s Ericsson Open, her right knee seized up in her quarter-final match against the brilliant young Russian, Elena Dementieva. It was diagnosed as a bone bruise on the tibia patel. She high-tailed back to California, had a week on crutches and the longest period out of the game since she turned professional in February 1993.

“I was lucky it was only a bone bruise,” she says rubbing a knee cap smoothed from freshly-peeled plaster, “if it had gone through to a fracture it could have ended my career. It was frustrating, I had to take my time, ride my bike, work my way back. But when you see what has happened to Corina, it puts it all into perspective.”

Four weeks ago in Paris, Davenport thought she was ready. But early on Sunday afternoon she felt reactions in her knee and so managed to scratch before the 4pm deadline. Well that is her story and she is a very truthful person. But it is also true that the word had just come through that Corina Morariu, with whom she had won the 1999 Wimbledon doubles title, had been rushed to hospital with acute leukaemia. Instead of being at Roland Garros, Davenport was at Corina’s bedside in Florida passing on messages from the locker room and listening to Chrissie Evert sending “good luck” calls on the TV from France.

“The chemotherapy was very severe,” said Davenport, fingering the gold `C’ on her necklace, “at one stage they had to resuscitate her. But she is very young and very strong and her husband and family are wonderfully supportive. I have been very fortunate with health in my family and this is the first time I have been close to a person in a position like that. When her husband rung me, I thought it was about our doubles pairing. When he told me about Corina it was one of the most devastating things I have ever heard.”

But never forget that Davenport is here to play tennis. Anne-Gaelle Sidot won’t. The pony-tailed 20-year-old from France’s Enghein-Les-Bains had taken Davenport to three sets in Los Angeles last summer but ring-rusty or not, Davenport was never going to allow such procrastination this time. The final scoreline was 6-3, 6-2, and, long before the end,

Sidot was grumbling to herself about the difficulties of facing such a much bigger, stronger and even faster opponent.

For the remarkable thing about Davenport in the flesh, as opposed to on the screen, is how lean and lissom she looks. TV loves the close up, and its configuration adds weight to the features. What you will see on `the box’ at Wimbledon is Lindsay, hamster cheeks puffed out in concentration still with the fat girl’s face. What you will see in the flesh is a mighty amazon who nowadays is lithe and elegant with it. At Eastbourne she wore a body hugging, avocado coloured T-shirt. Just as much as the big serve and that terrific double-fisted, teeth-clenched, cross-court backhand, this said that Davenport was happy about herself.

It was not ever thus. In August, 1998, when she was on the match-winning streak which would take her to the US Open title and her first stint as World No 1, she admitted to Sports Illustrated the “portion control” diet she had exerted on her favourite chocolate cake and “Mom’s beef Strogonoff” that had taken 25lb off the huge frame which catty rivals had nicknamed `Dump Truck’. “It hurts when you’re a teenager and people say that you’re too fat,” she said at the time. “Now I feel good about how I look and I’m taking that out on to the court with me.”

But after just Eastbourne as a  warm-up, can she still take this confidence out against the very best that Wimbledon can offer. “Oh yeah,” she says quickly. Lindsay may effect a fair bit of self-effacement but she is an All American heroine just the same. “On the grass, oh yeah. It really suits my game. Winning in 1999 was unbelievable and getting into the finals last year with a terrible back and a terrible hamstring. My coach says that was the most remarkable performance of my whole career.”

While she admits to still feeling a bit rusty and tentative, particularly when coming up for the volley, her opponents will not have liked the obvious relish in her voice as she talked of these championships. “Playing grass is a different rhythm,” she says, “it’s quicker, more bending and lunging but it’s also partly mental. You know you are going to get a lot of net cords because the net is a lot looser than on a hard court. You know you are going to come to just a couple of big points in the big matches and you just have to be kinda ready for it.”

Then she concludes with a summary which despite its modest delivery reminds you that she is a full inch bigger and stone heavier than even Venus Williams. “You have got to be aggressive,” says Davenport, “and know that anything can happen. If you are a hard hitter you can hit your way out of trouble. Hit it deep and hard. What is a person going to do?”

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