Twelve years on the professional tennis tour haven't numbed Lindsay Davenport to the charm of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club or to the honor of playing at Wimbledon. And gratitude for both swept over her as she walked through its gates last week for a few days practice before the 2005 championships began.
On Monday the hordes descended. And those who stopped for ice cream on this sweltering opening day likely missed Davenport's match, a 6-0, 6-2 breeze past Russian Alina Jidkova. It lasted 41 minutes, no more than an eye blink in the life of a tennis pro. But it encapsulated everything that need be said about why Davenport decided to keep competing, at 29, after reconciling herself to retirement this time a year ago.
"Hard to walk away when you feel like you could achieve the ultimate goal in tennis," Davenport said afterward. "While I still feel like I have that ability, I'm going to stick around."
That goal is another Grand Slam title to add to the three she already owns.
Should she achieve it this fortnight, it will represent a huge accomplishment. That's because for the first time in two years, a Grand Slam tournament includes all five of the world's top-ranked women. It's also the first time in two years that a Grand Slam has included both top Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, whose current rankings (seventh and 13th, respectively) don't reflect their ability, as well as both Williams sisters, who are equally capable of playing above their rankings (Venus is 16th; Serena, fourth).
"Having Venus, Serena, Justine and myself back on tour, I think it's fun again," said Clijsters, who dismissed Britain's Katie O'Brien, 6-2, 6-3, on Monday. "Everybody is here. Everybody is hungry again. I think that's great to see. I think for the public, that makes it even more interesting."
Most of the hype swirls around Sharapova, who rocketed to fame by defeating Serena Williams in last year's Wimbledon final at 17. Sharapova has only gotten stronger, richer and more confident since. Grass suits her game, which relies on big serves, aggression and powerful ground strokes. And she's delighted to be back at Wimbledon after losing to Henin-Hardenne on clay at the French Open. Her various corporate sponsors, which include Motorola, Tag Heuer watches and Canon, are delighted as well. A three-story image of Sharapova talking on a Motorola phone looms over High Street, the main drag in the quaint village of Wimbledon.
"It's funny," Sharapova giggled about the billboard. "I didn't know anything about it till I saw it."
She was deeply involved, however, in designing her outfits for Wimbledon, from the orange trim on her dress to the drape of her cover-up. She's particularly proud of the 18-karat gold specks that adorn her tennis shoes, worth roughly $900 a pair.
The biggest questions swirl around the Williams sisters, who have played sparingly in the past year. Serena withdrew from the French Open with an ankle injury. Venus showed up in Paris but delivered a halfhearted effort in losing to 15-year-old Bulgarian Sesil Karatantcheva in the third round. Neither entered a grass-court tune-up for Wimbledon, so it's hard to gauge whether they'll be fit when they open play Tuesday.
Commentator and former pro Mary Carillo hopes the sisters are back to the form that allowed them to dominate Wimbledon just a few years ago, with Venus winning in 2000 and 2001, and Serena in 2002 and 2003. "I have no side knowledge of how they've been training," Carillo said last week. "More than that, I have no sense of how much they miss being great. I hope they miss it a lot. It's hard watching them under-perform; it's not fun."
Most insiders are picking Henin-Hardenne to win, even though grass isn't her best surface. Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam to elude the gifted Belgian, who missed most of 2004 with a viral illness.
Largely overlooked is Davenport, Wimbledon's 1999 champion. That victory was so long ago, she confessed, she'd need to a video clip to jog her memory about her emotions that day. No such trigger was required to recall how she felt as she walked away from the grounds last year, racked with injury and fatigue. "I remember last year crying a little bit when I felt thinking, 'Oh, I might not be playing here again,' " Davenport recalled. "I just felt like I was losing that little inner fire that you need to always be at the top."
To her astonishment, Davenport finished the summer on a tear, winning four consecutive tournaments and, in the process, getting that fire back. She has returned for her 12th Wimbledon as the world's No. 1 player and tournament's top seed, which carries with it the privilege of playing opening day on Center Court, where she could scarcely do wrong Monday.
Davenport positively glowed afterward, deservedly proud of her game and grateful for one more chance to compete. "I feel like kind of on a little bit of borrowed time," she said, "because I didn't necessarily think it would happen again."