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
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.