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Davenport Rides the Wind at OpenBy Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 1997; Page C1
NEW YORK, Sept. 3 — The day Lindsay Davenport won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics last year, someone asked her if it was bigger than winning a Grand Slam. She had no idea what to answer. She'd never won a Slam. Never made the finals. Never even made it to the semis.
And for a long time, Davenport felt the weight of that failure. She put all kinds of pressure on herself to be the great American hope — especially here at the American Slam, the U.S. Open. This year, she decided to forget all that. She came to the Open to play, with no expectations. And it has turned into the best Grand Slam tournament of her life.
Inside Arthur Ashe Stadium today, Davenport survived the windy, unpredictable conditions and No. 3 Jana Novotna to claim a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5) victory in the first of two women's quarterfinals, and to advance to a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time. There she will face No. 1 Martina Hingis, who showed no sympathy for her doubles partner, No. 10 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, on her way to a 6-3, 6-2 victory. Davenport, the sixth seed, is one of only two women to beat Hingis this year.
"Whatever happens now is a bonus," said Davenport, who beat Hingis in three sets at a tournament final in Manhattan Beach, Calif., last month. "There were so many ups and downs with the wind, it just played havoc on the ball. It was difficult to play. I'm just really lucky I got through."
Jim Courier said at the start of this tournament that the old facility — Louis Armstrong Stadium — felt like "a toilet bowl" when the wind swirled. Today, the new building proved that it, too, can create conditions akin to full flush. Spectators had to clutch their ice cream wrappers to keep from inadvertently littering, fans held onto their hats, and the players had to make adjustments to their games.
The wind was hardest on the serve, which was evident when Greg Rusedski and Richard Krajicek — two of the biggest servers — followed Davenport and Novotna onto the court. Both had been broken just once in this tournament. Both were broken in their first service games. Better able to handle the conditions, Rusedski prevailed, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6), in a matchup of unseeded players, and will meet another nonseed. Jonas Bjorkman advanced when No. 15 Petr Korda, who beat No. 1 Pete Sampras, withdrew with a severe head cold when already down 7-6 (7-3), 6-2, 1-0.
Like Davenport, Rusedski will be making his first Grand Slam semifinal appearance.
"I think I handled the conditions better, made Richard play a few more volleys than he made me play," Rusedski said. "I got a lot more free points from him."
Neither Novotna nor Davenport, who also are doubles partners, seemed to know quite what to do with the situation. They didn't know what to do about the effect the wind had on their ball tosses or their topspin lobs — not to mention how to deal with tennis skirts that constantly wanted to blow upward. And by the end of their match, which lasted 2 ½ hours, both were almost laughing at the comical effects the wind had on their performance — Davenport, for example, once double-faulted when her second toss blew sideways, and Novotna hit a key shot down the line that literally blew wide.
The last set alone was worth a few chuckles, as both tried hopelessly to finish the match. That set lasted 1 hour 24 minutes, and featured seemingly endless unconverted break points from both sides. Once ahead 4-1, Davenport lost five consecutive games before she managed to break Novotna — on her fifth break-point opportunity of the game — to even the set at 5. Told after it was over that she had converted just six of 25 break-point opportunities for the match, Davenport cringed.
"That's pathetic. I didn't know that. Wow."
Before her match began early this afternoon, Davenport wasn't thinking about the wind or her opponent. She heard the public address announcer state in her introduction that she was appearing in her 22nd Grand Slam. The number hit her hard. This is Davenport's seventh U.S. Open; fellow American Venus Williams also has made the semifinals here — she will play No. 11 Irina Spirlea — but she did so in her first appearance at 17.
"I was like, 'Oh, my goodness,'" said Davenport, who is 21 and turned pro at the start of 1993. "I don't feel old, but I feel in the middle of three generations. I think Venus and Martina are the faces of the future."
Hingis is not only the future, she's the present, and her performance here thus far makes it apparent she will be tough to beat. She hasn't dropped a set through five rounds, and the only match she's played that even resembled a challenge was her 7-5, 6-2 victory over Russia's Elena Likhovtseva in the fourth round. Hingis thought Sanchez Vicario might give her a rough road, but the Spaniard didn't. Now, she's waiting for Davenport.
"She has the potential to win a Grand Slam," Novotna said, endorsing Davenport as the biggest potential obstacle left for Hingis. "If she keeps on hitting the ball like she was today, then she definitely can do it."
Novotna knows well the pressure Davenport has previously placed upon herself to be successful in Grand Slams. A month shy of 30, she has reached three finals but never managed to win a Slam. Her last best chance came at Wimbledon, at which she lost on her preferred surface, grass, to Hingis in June. Wimbledon is the tournament Novotna always thought she might win. And the U.S. Open is the one that is always linked to Davenport's name.
"I would expect Lindsay to do her best right here, on hard court," Novotna said. "This would be her tournament. Maybe the Australian. I don't definitely think it's taken that long. She has her whole tennis career ahead of her."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company