- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England To the average fan, Lindsay Davenport is by far the most forgettable woman among Wimbledon's final four.

She doesn't carry the Grand Slam aspirations or the comeback kid label that has made fellow semifinalist Jennifer Capriati the most compelling story in tennis. She lacks the feminine grace of diminutive upstart Justine Henin, Capriati's 19-year-old Belgian challenger. And she can't match the awesome raw skills of defending champion Venus Williams, the 21-year-old tennis diva awaiting her on Centre Court today.

The world loves a mammoth story, a wispy beauty, a phenomenal talent. It has little room in its heart for a gawky overachiever.

"I've heard it all before I'm slow, awkward, unathletic, overweight, whatever," said Davenport, who returned from a three-month layoff (right knee) two weeks ago to win her first subsequent start (Eastbourne on grass). "People have said that for years. But somehow I've managed to be in the top two or three for four years now."

Davenport has managed her four-year run, featuring three major titles and the 1999 Wimbledon crown, because she has more than just a solid serve and the purest groundstrokes in the women's game. The average corpse is only a shade slower than Davenport.

But the 25-year-old Californian has a much more refined understanding of the game than the average power player. She has great anticipation, a quality that allows her to maximize her limited mobility. She understands how to manipulate a point, cutting off the angles that would give her opponents the chance to exploit her suspect speed. And she has one of the game's more agile competitive minds, rarely losing her focus and carefully selecting the proper times to unleash her most aggressive swings.

"I think I can overpower a lot of girls," Davenport said after crushing Kim Clijsters 6-1, 6-2 in one of Tuesday's quarterfinals. "That's my strategy going out there, but I don't necessarily go for winners. I go hard and go for deep shots, maybe even down the middle. It might not look as flashy as some other players hitting winners all the time, but it gets the job done."

Instead of "other players" read, the Williams sisters, both beloved and notorious for their full-throttle approach. Unlike Davenport, Venus and Serena are pure power players. There was certainly nothing finesse-conscious about Serena's 75 unforced errors during her fade in the quarters against Capriati. And for all her improvement over the last three years, Venus still features a game less subtle than a nuclear warhead.

"If you play against a Williams sister, I think the strategy is, you're still standing when they lose. Because you know they're going to whale away and make a ton of errors," said TNT analyst Mary Carillo yesterday. "Venus is off balance a lot. But she can hit a great shot from an awful position, and all of a sudden it's an aggressive winner. So can Serena. Who else can do that?

"If they ever do learn more court craft, it will be sick. As good as they are now, there are things that they haven't even started to work on that any other player of that strength learns and knows right from the start. Their technique needs a ton of work."

Not Davenport's.

"Lindsay actually has a subtle and nuanced big-babe game," Carillo said. "She does some pretty things. She understands the court. It doesn't look like it, because she's this sort of slower, hulking type, but she knows her onions out there. I love Lindsay's game, because she's just not your garden variety big babe. I think she's real smart out there, and she has great hands. But I still don't know if she can beat Venus, because Venus has the goods. She and Serena can both play badly and still compete well."

In their last two meetings at the majors, Venus has proved just that against Davenport, beating her 6-3, 7-6 (3) in last year's Wimbledon final and topping her again in the U.S. Open final (6-4, 7-5). Both times Davenport had to watch Richard Williams' antics. After Venus' first major title at Wimbledon, Richard danced atop the NBC broadcast booth with a sign that read, "It's Venus' party and nobody else is invited." Then at Flushing Meadows, Richard rollicked on the court while Davenport waited for her runner-up trophy.

That made Davenport's victory over Venus in the finals at Linz, Austria, at the end of last season all the more sweet. That match, the last between the rivals, snapped Venus' 35-match winning streak and reaffirmed Davenport's belief in her own abilities.

And though she won't come right out and say it, Davenport probably would rather beat Venus than anyone else. Why? Because it's tough to watch two women with shaky technique, a nonchalant schedule, questionable commitment and no real coach come out on tour and still overwhelm those negatives with raw, unparalleled talent.

"They create a lot of drama for the sport," Davenport said diplomatically of the Williamses.

Today the under-appreciated Davenport hopes that drama involves a few more Wimbledon tears for the Williams clan.

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