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Tennis - The Return of the Tennis Jedi

By Michael Cecilio
Saturday, July 27th, 2002

It's unbelievable sometimes how much a well-earned break from the game can be so vital, and so beneficial, for a tennis player's game. Often, the return from hiatus, a hiatus which is usually forced upon a player through injury or illness, raises questions as to whether a player is competition-ready. Does a player have the confidence, the technique, the fitness, and the mental tenacity to be able to compete well upon return?

Monica Seles, who has had her fair share of injuries and illnesses over the last few years, is someone who quite noticeably comes back from a break stronger, fitter, fresher, and hence, sharper. Her last extended break took place last year beginning after her loss at Indian Wells up to her return in Stanford -- a 3-4 month break in fact in which she missed Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

Upon her return, Monica quickly advanced to two semifinals and two finals in her first four tournaments, beating the likes of Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis (twice), Serena Williams, Justine Henin, and Jelena Dokic.

Martina Hingis was another who, at the end of last year, was forced to take a break due to surgery on her ankle. It was the first extended break that Martina had taken from the game since the beginning of 1997 when she was forced out of much of the claycourt season. Martina returned to the tour in January this year noticeably fitter and slightly more aggressive -- this paid itself off when she won in Sydney despite a tough field, and four times was one point away from claiming an elusive Grand Slam title in Melbourne.

It is probably true that top players can get back in synch a lot more easily than those who occupy positions lower in the rankings. Top players have built up the confidence and the ability to finish tough matches throughout their careers and can rely on years of experience to get the job done. They also possess a certain aura on the court which will never disappear -- at least in the minds of their opponents.

The mental hold that they have over lower-ranked opponents is often at times crucial when situations get tight. On the other hand, top players know that they are going to be at their most vulnerable, and lower-ranked players know that this is as good an opportunity as ever to claim an elusive scalp.

Take Lindsay Davenport. Davenport has had her fair share of injuries and misadventure and subsequently has spent a lot of time away from the tour at various intervals throughout her career. She spent a few months away from the tour in 2000 and had a tough time getting back into the swing of things with a first round loss at Roland Garros that year. She managed to get to the Wimbledon finals, but she admitted as much that it was only after a real struggle throughout the tournament.

Again, she spent time away last year after injuring herself in Miami and returned to the tour in Eastbourne. Having personally watched her throughout that comeback tournament, it was amazing how quickly Davenport got back into gear -- and in fact, she won the event and then proceeded on to the Wimbledon semifinals. What makes things so easy for her after a long lay off is that she has the talent, the weight of shot, and incredible technique that she only needs to rely on her instincts.

However, what used to make things tougher for her were a lack of confidence and a lack of mobility. Her lack of confidence was often a result of her lack of mobility, especially earlier in her career, but since 1997, when she undertook her coach Robert van t'Hof's fitness regime, not only did the mobility increase in her game, but so too did her mental fitness.

Davenport once again marks another return to the tour at the Stanford University courts in California. This return is, however, unlike others she's made in her long career. For a start, she makes her return after almost nine months of inaction. Her last singles match was played against Kim Clijsters at the WTA Championships where she injured her knee and consequently required surgery.

What was to follow was a difficult road to recovery through a particularly arduous rehabilitation program. Typical sessions required her to sit on a machine for eight hours a day which would continually stretch and contract her leg and develop the strength in her injured knee. What kept her going was a faith that she could return to the tour in top form and a belief that the forced hiatus was going to help her in the long run.

Watching Davenport now at Stanford, there is no doubt that the forced break has made her fresher, more eager, and more focussed than ever before on the courts. Many have commented on her svelte and fit appearance and that she seems to be in better shape now than she ever has been in her career.

Of course, the crushing groundstrokes and the penetrating serve is still there and are as bludgeoning as ever before. But what is surprising is how quickly Lindsay has connected all these facets of her game so soon after her lay off from the tour. It is not just a tribute to her immense talent, but more so a tribute to her confidence (even if it is understated at times), her experience, her court smarts, and her aura.

Jelena Dokic is someone who is well aware of Lindsay Davenport's aura. Up to their quarterfinal match in Stanford, Dokic had lost to Lindsay seven out of seven times in previous encounters. Entering their match, Dokic was perched at No. 6 in the world (with solid results in the last year, giving her a good opportunity to enter the Top 5 next week for the first time in her career), while Davenport, who had been MIA for eight to nine months, had fallen from No. 1 to No. 9.

The result? Davenport just simply outclassed the talented Yugoslav in a routine 6-2 6-2 drubbing. Dokic admitted that Davenport looked in better form than ever before and that Davenport was still giving her the same problems that she gave her in the past. No one expected Davenport, in her fourth professional match since 2001, to defeat a Top 10 player -- and defeat her with such ease.

I have to say that, as a Monica Seles fan, I was slightly peeved with Davenport's protected seeding at Stanford, which gave Lindsay the No. 2 position ahead of Seles who, according to the Sanex WTA Tour rankings, should have taken the slot. Had the tournament followed the rankings, Davenport should have been seeded No. 6.

It was a brave move the Bank of the West Classic tournament made, and it could have easily resulted with egg on their faces had Davenport not taken out the rust from her game in time. I guess the tournament had more faith in Davenport's comeback than probably I did.

Looking at the results, you would have to say -- albeit a little prematurely -- that Lindsay is playing like a worthy No. 3 or No. 4 player anyway. No. 4 Monica Seles, No. 5 Kim Clijsters, and No. 7 Justine Henin are playing inconsistently and while they have been able to hit peak form at some point in the season, they have each been marred by inconsistency and in fact none of the three are at their best at the moment.

No. 6 Jelena Dokic has had good results this year, but still has not shown that she can consistently hang with the top guns. No. 8 Martina Hingis is MIA and it is unknown when she will be back.

A Top 10 group which is all in current competition and with its players competing at a high level is what us true tennis fans really desire. Admittedly, while this year's Roland Garros and Wimbledon tournaments were reasonably good, there was a certain element missing at the top. It's great when there are not just one or two contenders for the major titles, but a handful, and in essence, that is what girls like Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis add to the mix. They add their varying personalities and culture and on-court games to the tour and it makes for a very watchable and exciting tour.

What's more, they are perhaps the best candidates to unseat the current triumvirate which is dominating the tour in Capriati, and more notably, the Williams sisters. Nothing against the current top three girls at all -- it's just that true tennis fans are eager to see an even more balanced mix at the top and even more rivalries at the latter stages of the tournament.

I welcome Lindsay's return to the tour. She is one of the few on tour who truly adds a degree of humility and class to the game. Although she is confident about where she can go with her game, her confidence is driven internally and only from within, I'm sure, is her confidence truly evident.

Her personality is very refreshing in contrast with a lot of the media darlings on the tour, preferring to take a quiet back seat while the others do the work that she quite obviously dislikes. Her game is so smooth and one of the cleanest to ever hit the Sanex WTA Tour -- her groundstrokes are marked things of beauty as they are hit with such power, depth, cleanliness, and accuracy. Her serve is varied and powerful and her second serve is very consistent. Her net play has improved dramatically, as has her fitness and her mental attitude.

Quite obviously, Lindsay is playing at a very high level once again and it will not take her long before she is beating those at the highest calibre. In fact, she already has! Hoping for many more good wins in the near future and a swift return to the top of the rankings!

Lindsay plays her semifinal match in Stanford against world No. 5 and defending champion Kim Clijsters. World No. 2 Venus Williams plays Lisa Raymond in the other semifinal.

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