Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lindsay Davenport is down, so the WTA kicks her

I can't think of a more frustrating tennis career than the one Lindsay Davenport has had. In the late 90s, when no one in particular had picked her to be winner, she won three Grand Slam tournaments. Later, she had to face a very serious injury with a grueling rehab, and was out for a long time. And for the last few years, everyone agrees she has played better tennis than when she won the Slams.

Still, further Slam victory has eluded her. In 2004, she went on a hardcourt tear and won every tournament in the U.S. Open series except for the one she didn't enter. She seemed a shoo-in to win the U.S. Open. But during her quarterfinal match with Svetlana Kuznetsova, she injured her foot. Davenport was able to play out the match, but not able to win it. Kuznetsova went on to win the U.S. Open.

In January of 2005, Davenport reached the finals of the Australian Open, where there is always blistering heat. She also reached the finals of the doubles competition, playing with her best friend, Corina Morariu, who was making a comeback from cancer. There was no way Davenport was going to pull out of doubles. By the time she got to her final against Serena Wiliams, she was so tired, there were moments when she just stood on the court as the ball whizzed by her. Williams won.

The biggest heartbreak of all came at Wimbledon last year, when Davenport held a match point in her final against Venus Williams (who defeated her in the 2000 Wimbledon final), but could not close. In a lengthy, stunning, still-talked-about final, Williams walked away with the Venus Rosewater dish, and Davenport was once again left with finalist status. She appeared sluggish and out of sorts at the U.S. Open, and lost her quarterfinal to Elena Dementieva.

During her epic struggle against Williams at Wimbledon last year, Davenport hurt her back. The injury became worse over time, and she has missed a great deal of this season, withdrawing from both the French Open and Wimbledon. While she was at home recovering, she passed out and apparently hit her head on something, and sustained both whiplash and a concussion. It has just been one damned thing after another.

Davenport's career is coming to a close. It is hard to believe that--playing at the level she's been playing at for the last few years--she has not won at least one more Slam. I expected her to win two more and retire as a five-time Slam winner (and Olympic gold medal winner, too). Time is running out. She is entered in the U.S. Open, which begins later this month, but no one expects her to do that well because she has been out for so long. She is also scheduled to play at the Australian Open, and many of us think that she will call it quits next year at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, California, her home tournament.

Davenport's U.S. Open chances would have been improved this year if she could have played a couple of warm-up hardcourt tournaments in the U.S. Open Series. Enter the WTA: Davenport requested wild card entries into both the Acura Classic in San Diego and the Rogers Cup in Montreal, and was denied them. Technically speaking, the denial was appropriate because Davenport had not fulfilled the commitment requirements needed to be eligible for a wild card.

However, there is some wiggle room in the system which allows the WTA to grant an exemption to the commitment rule if the circumstance calls for it. But Sony Ericsson WTA Tour executive director Larry Scott refused to invoke the exemption for Davenport--even after the USTA intervened--because, he said, the exemption was intended for semi-retired players (indeed, it was created for Monica Seles), and not for a player who began the year as number one in the world.

Again, there is some technical validity to what Scott is saying. And it so happens that I am a stickler for following rules. But the bottom line is that Scott is allowed to use his discretion, and he chose to deny Davenport the wild cards.

Lindsay Davenport believes that Scott did this in order to set an example to other players; the WTA tour has been riddled with sudden withdrawals, the most recent being a mass withdrawal by top players from the Rogers Cup. She also considered filing suit against the WTA, but then changed her mind. Scott made a judgment call, yes, but there is something very wrong when one of the sport's best ambassadors who has always played by the rules and has been an exemplary sportswoman, is treated this way. And considering that Davenport won't be on the tour much longer, there is a particular harshness in denying her a chance to compete in any significant way in what is probably her last U.S. Open.


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