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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TENNIS

Tennis Medal Worth Its Weight in Gold to Davenport

Women: Sanchez Vicario of Spain upset, 7-6, 6-2, by Newport Beach player who craved sound of national anthem.

August 03, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Lindsay Davenport's weight-loss program suffered a setback here Friday. Davenport spent an hour and 35 minutes on Center Court at the Stone Mountain Tennis Center in the midday Georgia humidity, running down Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's forehands, and actually gained a pound.

And it will stay there until Davenport finally decides to remove the green ribbon from around her neck and stash the Olympic gold medal someplace for safe keeping.

Assuming she ever does.

Six months and 20 pounds ago, the very idea of Davenport spending a golden moment atop the Olympic tennis victory stand was unfathomable, even to Davenport. She was too slow. Too heavy. Too wild. Too lacking in self-confidence.

"There was a long time where I didn't think I was going to make this [U.S. Olympic] team because we had so many highly ranked players ahead of me," she says.

None of those who made it to Atlanta, however, finished ahead of Davenport. The 20-year-old from Newport Beach outlasted everyone else entered in the women's Olympic tennis draw--Monica Seles, Conchita Martinez, Gabriela Sabatini, Mary Pierce, Jana Novotna and, ultimately, Sanchez Vicario too, in a 7-6, 6-2 sweep in the singles final.

How about this for a roll call of Olympic tennis champions since the sport regained its full medal status after 1984?

Seoul, 1988--Steffi Graf.

Barcelona, 1992--Jennifer Capriati.

Atlanta, 1996--Lindsay Davenport.

The last line on the list is either an aberration or an arrival, considering that Davenport:

--Had never beaten Sanchez Vicario, a three-time Grand Slam titlist, in five previous meetings, winning one of 11 sets.

--Had never advanced beyond the singles quarterfinals of a major tournament.

--Lost in the second round of the 1995 U.S. Open and finished the year ranked 12th in the world, six slots lower than her 1994 ranking.

--Began these Olympics ranked 10th in the world, seeded ninth here and rated only fourth in the United States, behind Seles, Chanda Rubin and Mary Joe Fernandez.

Olympic longshot?

"Nobody expected her to do anything," NBC tennis analyst Bud Collins said.

With the possible exception of Billie Jean King, the U.S. women's tennis coach and long a proponent of the "I think I can" school of player mental preparation.

After watching Davenport hammer Japan's Kimiko Date in a Fed Cup match last month, King pulled Davenport aside and told her, "The way you're playing right now, you could win the gold medal. The Olympics could be your tournament."

Davenport, a notorious self-doubter, couldn't quite focus on that image. She comes from an Olympic family. Her father, Wink, played volleyball for the United States during the 1968 Games. He and his teammates finished seventh in Mexico City, so the Davenports know how rarefied the air on the top tier of the medals podium is.

"We never really actually talked about winning a medal," Davenport said. "To win any medal was beyond my parents' expectations--for sure, beyond mine."

Yet, Davenport kept moving through the field. She benefited from a friendly draw--Seles, Sanchez Vicario and Novotna were in the other bracket; Martinez was eliminated in the quarterfinals--but she played five matches to reach the final and lost only one set, to Germany's Anke Huber in the third round.

By Thursday night, while Davenport sat in a restaurant watching Michael Johnson and Dan O'Brien receive their medals, it finally sank in: two more sets and she would be an Olympic champion too.

"For the last two weeks, I've been hearing ["The Star-Spangled Banner"] so much for the other athletes," Davenport said. "And only last night did I really think I could hear it for myself. I realized that actually when Michael Johnson was on the stand, and Dan O'Brien. I thought, 'I want to hear that song so badly tomorrow.' "

After Novotna dispatched Mary Joe Fernandez, 7-6, 6-4, in the morning's bronze-medal match, Davenport got her chance. The first set produced a tiebreaker after neither player could break serve. Davenport went up, 6-4, in the tiebreaker, but squandered two set points--backhand wide, defensive lob long--to give Sanchez Vicario a second chance at 6-all.

A younger, heavier Davenport might have huffed and puffed and overloaded on sports drink then and there, blowing the set and the match. But here, her new fitness regimen paid immediate dividends.

Davenport responded with a strong serve and deep volley to go back ahead, 7-6, and pulled out the set with a bit of good fortune--a two-handed backhand that hit the tape and trickled over.

"I was, I think, very unlucky on the last three points of the tiebreaker," said Sanchez Vicario, who believed the first set dictated the rest of the match. "I think [Davenport] was a little bit tired then. If I win the first set, then she knows she has to win two more and [the result] could have been different."

Davenport drew confidence from the first set, breaking Sanchez Vicario's serve in her first two service games of the second set. Sanchez Vicario broke back once, but failed to hold serve again at 2-4, enabling Davenport to serve out the match at 5-2.

The loss continued a string of near-misses for Sanchez Vicario in 1996. Runner-up at the French Open, runner-up at Wimbledon and now, runner-up at the Olympics.

Once the gold medal was hers, Davenport couldn't take her fingers off it--stopping just short of biting the glittering prize to make certain it was real.

"This means everything for me," Davenport said. "No matter what else happens in my life, I'll always be a gold medalist."

And she'll always have Atlanta.

Maybe next, she goes for Paris or New York.

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