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Davenport Gives U.S. Tennis a Gold

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, Aug. 3, 1996; Page D01

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga., Aug. 2—Lindsay Davenport does not want to hear that tennis does not belong in the Olympics, no matter how many times she’s heard that said, either in public or in the quiet confines of a players’ lounge at an event on the men’s or women’s professional circuit.

These Games mean something to her. She came to Atlanta and lived in the athletes’ village. She took field trips to the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center to watch some of her U.S. teammates compete in women’s swimming. She got goose bumps Thursday night when she heard the "Star-Spangled Banner" played for Michael Johnson and his historic victory in the men’s 200-meter race.

And this afternoon, Davenport did not care if there were empty seats at the center court of the Stone Mountain Tennis Center, a venue 16 miles—and a million light-years—from Olympic Stadium. Playing in what she called "the most important match" of her lifetime, Davenport beat Spain’s Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 7-6 (8-6), 6-2, in the gold medal match of women’s singles tennis, and then stood, almost spellbound, as the national anthem played for her.

"This is definitely the most proud I’ve ever been in my life," said Davenport, a 20-year-old from Newport Beach, Calif. "And not just for me, but for my family and my country. For the last two weeks, I’ve been hearing [the U.S. anthem] played so much for the other athletes. Now I’ve heard it for myself."

Davenport, ranked No. 10 in the world, struggled in the first set. She had Sanchez Vicario at love-40 in the sixth game, then failed to break, and threw down her racket in frustration. She held serve throughout the set—not without a battle a few times—and then won the tiebreaker on, of all things, a net cord.

"That’s definitely the luckiest I’ve ever gotten on such a big point," she said.

She was much stronger in the second set. It opened with three straight breaks of service, two for Davenport, who broke Sanchez Vicario again in the seventh game to serve for the match at 5-2. With chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" rippling through the crowd whenever the chair umpire did not demand silence, Davenport reached match point after a long rally ended with Sanchez Vicario hitting a forehand long.

A few moments later, Davenport held her racket to the sky in celebration, after Sanchez Vicario smacked a final shot wide. Then she ran to the sideline, where her entire family—including her father, Wink Davenport, a member of the fifth-place U.S. men’s volleyball team in the 1968 Olympics—embraced her.

"I’ve been looking forward to the Olympics so long," said Davenport, who is as exuberant off the court as she is tense and, often, frustrated, on it. "This means everything to me. No matter what happens in my life, I’ll be a gold medalist."

In tennis, the Olympics tend to belong to those athletes who haven’t been all that successful in the Grand Slams. Jennifer Capriati experienced the biggest moment of glory in her erstwhile career when she won the gold at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Davenport has been ranked as high as sixth, but never has made it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. When asked today how this would compare to a Grand Slam victory, Davenport had no answer. She’s never been there.

Here at the 1996 Games, Andre Agassi—who plays Spain’s Sergi Bruguera in the men’s singles final Saturday—has dominated an event that has, for the most part, felt more like a routine stop on the men’s or women’s circuit than an Olympic Games. Agassi is one of the few top-ranked men to appear here. The women had a better turnout—in addition to Sanchez Vicario (No. 3), Monica Seles (co-No.1 with Steffi Graf) was here, as well as the Czech Republic’s Jana Novotna (No. 6), who beat American Mary Joe Fernandez (No. 8), 7-6 (8-6), 6-4, in the bronze medal match earlier today.

Fernandez and Gigi Fernandez face Novotna and Helena Sukova in the doubles final Saturday.

Top-seeded Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge of Australia, who had survived a record-setting semifinal marathon that included 34 games in the third set alone, won the gold in men’s doubles, defeating England’s Tim Henman and Neil Broad, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

"Overall, it seems like it’s meant a lot more to the female players than the men’s players," Davenport said. "Except for Graf, most came out in support of this, and for whatever reason, the men weren’t like that. .‚.‚. A lot of male tennis players didn’t want to go through that scene, they didn’t want to stay in the village."

Davenport wanted to experience it all. Still, she hardly dared hope she would come home with the gold medal.

In fact, she didn’t let that dream take hold until Thursday night, when she sat in a restaurant and watched on television as first Johnson, then U.S. decathlete Dan O’Brien, received their gold medals.

"All I could think," Davenport said, "was, ‘Oh, I want to hear that anthem for me, I want to hear that tomorrow.’

"It meant everything to me."

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