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AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Postpartum Impression

Lindsay Davenport recast her 'retirement' as maternity leave, returning to tennis weeks after giving birth. And she's winning like she never left.

January 13, 2008|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia -- There were the usual pregnancy cravings, of course, but one unexpected desire reached out, grabbed and fairly shook Lindsay Davenport out of her virtual retirement.

She was watching tennis at Indian Wells with her husband Jon Leach in March, a few months away from having baby Jagger and months from having to explain to people on an hourly basis that, no, her son's name was not an homage to Mick.

"That was the first time I thought about playing again," said Davenport, who turned professional at Indian Wells in 1993.

Nostalgia is one thing. But some thoughts don't go away and this wasn't so easily dismissed after Jagger was born on June 10. And about six weeks later, the 31-year-old Davenport was on court in organized competition and hoping not to "embarrass" herself playing TeamTennis doubles in Sacramento.

What once looked like a lark has morphed into to a full-fledged comeback as the first Grand Slam tournament of the year starts at Melbourne Park. The conversation about the genuine Australian Open contenders leads with No. 1-ranked Justine Henin, defending champion Serena Williams and 2007 finalist Maria Sharapova. Davenport, who won here in 2000, belongs, along with another former champion, Venus Williams, in the next sentence by virtue of her accomplishments since returning.

Or as one clever newspaper caption writer put it: From Here to Maternity.

Her statistics speak volumes. Davenport is 18-1 since returning to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour in singles, winning at Bali and Quebec City in the fall and in Auckland, New Zealand, earlier this month. Jelena Jankovic, seeded third here, is the lone player to defeat Davenport, beating her, 6-3, 7-5, in the semifinals at Beijing in September.

Davenport will meet Sara Errani of Italy in the first round, and is scheduled to face last year's finalist, Sharapova, in the second. Not the friendliest draw.

"At first, I was like, 'Oh, that stinks,' " Davenport said. "Because there's probably five girls that are favored to win the tournament. But it is what it is. I'm glad I've known for a while. . . .

"The thought of hopefully winning [in the first round] and getting back on Center Court, it'll be fun. I'll embrace it more than I have a marquee match."

Still, something else, beyond the titles and results, has caught the attention of her tennis colleagues.

"I mean, I'm speechless because she looks better than me and she's seven months out of having a baby," Serena Williams said here at a pre-tournament news conference. "I'm convinced if I had a baby, seven months later I'd probably still be in the hospital trying to get over the pain."

You could have almost called 2007 the year of the mother/athlete. Not only did Davenport, a three-time Grand Slam singles winner and Olympic gold medalist, return to action after having a baby but two other local Olympians, Lisa Leslie (basketball) and Lisa Fernandez (softball), are coming back after childbirth.

"You're definitely inspired about it," Davenport said. "There's Sybille Bammer and soccer players. They've shown it can be done. . . . But in the beginning, I never thought this would happen. I've gone from, 'Oh my God, what am I doing?' to where I almost feel more concentrated playing the match, more focused."

Davenport mentioned Bammer, a colleague on the tour who is the mother of a young daughter, during an interview at her Irvine home in mid-December. There were piles of Christmas cards, to be sent out, on the living room table. Clearly, the parenting effort is a team project with Leach, who is on hand in Melbourne, along with Davenport's nanny.

Tennis has tweaked what appeared to be a road headed solely to the carpool lane and youth soccer practices. Davenport plans on playing three of the four Grand Slam events this year -- skipping the French Open and the European clay-court season -- and intends to represent the U.S. in Fed Cup play in February and, most likely, in the Olympics at Beijing in August.

Now, the vast Irvine home in a gated community, purchased in a self-admitted fit of "nesting instinct," may be too big and too lonely for Jon when Davenport and Jagger are on the road.

Davenport said she will choose her events based on what is best for Jagger, in terms of comfort level and size. To that end, she decided to try Auckland for the first time and will play in Memphis next month and the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells in March. Indian Wells was where the idea for the comeback started, making it a full circle kind of thing.

"I'm super excited to go to Indian Wells," she said. "The tournament holds the most special memories for me, more than any other. I can't believe I get a chance to play there with my son."

Perhaps there will be a continuation of a trend that began in Bali and continued when Davenport won her most recent title in New Zealand.

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