Lindsay Davenport May Not Be Comfortable With Fame, but America's Top-Ranked Women's Tennis Player Continues to . . . : SHINE IN THE SPOTLIGHT

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This won't do at all. The top-ranked American woman tennis player is not behaving in a manner equal to her station. She is on the court hitting, but shagging her own balls.

A photographer is seeking to place the No. 6-ranked player in the world in all manner of awkward positions and she's complying with good humor.

A reporter has been hanging around the Newport Beach tennis club for hours and the player doesn't mind .

It's enough to give tennis a good name. There are no entourage, no smarmy agents and no bejeweled small dogs. Just Lindsay Davenport and her 18-year-old self, full of an athlete's killer confidence and a teen-ager's self-doubt. This is the new wave, America's no-problem champion.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

The setting: Madison Square Garden, New York City. The finals of the Virginia Slims Championships. Television. Across the net is the tour's pouty heart-throb, Gabriela Sabatini, who even while sweating--maybe especially while sweating--exudes a healthy glamour. Gabby, with her perky nickname and a smile that blinds, is clearly the crowd favorite.

And here you are. Your hair does not cascade, it meekly agrees to be ponytailed. Your sweat does not make you glow, it only makes you damp. You are acutely aware that you are 6 feet 3 and scrunch down. Your white tennis skirt feels too short and you absently tug on it. You wish everyone would stop looking at you.

Lindsay Davenport loves the part where you play tennis and get to smack the ball but she doesn't care for the time between points. She has adopted a stony stoicism on court, giving the impression that she has the nervous system of a clam.

Not true. She's roiling with emotion. But Davenport believes that if she pumps her fist after a winner, she'll somehow embarrass her opponent. Her father would scold her if she yelled at a linesman. The idea of doing a racket-flung-to-the-roof celebratory dance after winning a match is humiliating even to think about.

After she lost to Sabatini in New York, Davenport was happy to meet the press. She thinks that players who don't meet their obligations are spoiled. She chatted on about her great year, her second as a pro, and how nice it was to end the season on a high note.

Davenport, who grew up in Palos Verdes, talked about high school and her impending vacation to Hawaii and smiled and laughed with ease.

When the public can see Davenport like this, as an engaging, intelligent young woman who is relentlessly normal, it might take to her. But so far in her brief career, few can get past Lindsay the Tall or Lindsay the Big.

It was like that at the U.S. Open in September. With Martina Navratilova skipping the final Grand Slam tournament of the year, Davenport suddenly was thrust into the spotlight as the highest ranked American woman at her country's national championships. She had just graduated from high school, had just turned 18.

Much was expected of Davenport and when she lost in the third round to Mana Endo of Japan, it was not because of her inexperience. It became an issue of her fitness--the code word for weight.

"A lot of awful things were written about me," Davenport said, still not comprehending. "Like, I'm too fat. I'm too slow. I didn't understand why they wrote that. It's not like I'm eating cheeseburgers all the time. I had a hard time right after the Open. I had a hard time dealing with it.

"I freaked out. I hated it. I didn't want to play. I kept thinking, 'I'm not even one of the top players and I hate this. What must it be like for Steffi (Graf)?' I stopped reading anything."

Davenport lists her weight at 165. There is a fullness in her face but she appears trim. For the last few months, she has been working with a fitness coach, as much to develop speed as to lose weight.

Lynne Rolley, the U.S. Tennis Assn.'s director of women's coaching, began working with Davenport when the player was 12. Conditioning has always been a priority.

"She's got constant work to do on that," Rolley said. "It's something she has to address. It's difficult for her with her size. It's important to be mobile and strong."

So much attention has been paid to her weight, however, that it's often forgotten that Davenport is still young and her body, whatever it may become, is still forming.

"I would say that she needs to lose 10 pounds, at most," Billie Jean King said. "She's 100% slow twitch (muscle fiber), so her weight has nothing to do with her speed. That's genetics. Who cares? The good thing is that she doesn't have an eating disorder. Be thankful for that. I say, leave her alone. Let her be happy."

SHE WHO STOOPS TO CONQUER

If U.S. tennis officials had watched Davenport hit golf balls at a driving range for the first time last week, they would have wanted to throw a sheet over her and spirit her off the course, lest the club pro see her. The kid can hit a golf ball.

She also can hit a tennis ball. You might say Davenport is a natural hitter.

On the court, she hits the ball cleanly and hard. Her ground strokes are solid and she shows signs of developing the power in her ever-improving serve to go along with the rest of her game.

Davenport got her early tennis training from Robert Lansdorp and when her family moved to Murietta while she was in high school, she began to work with Robert Van't Hof at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach, as well as Rolley, who often traveled with her.

Beginning this week, Davenport will work with Craig Kardon, who along with King, coached Navratilova. Kardon will be able to spend more time on tour with Davenport.

The American tennis Establishment is watching Davenport with unmasked excitement. In Davenport they have a star with her feet on the ground who appears to be able to withstand the physical and emotional rigors of the tour.

Davenport, who earned more than $600,000 in prize money this year, does not think of herself as being rich and lives a modest lifestyle with few extravagances.

"Money doesn't blow me away, I make enough," Davenport said. "It's so abnormal. This is the only sport where a 14-year-old is making all the money for her parents and grandparents. It's gonna mess them up, if not now, then in 10 years."

Her parents, Ann and Wink Davenport, say they have made a conscious effort not to raise a "tennis brat." When she travels with her daughter, rather than delivering a pep speech before the match, Ann Davenport will ask Lindsay what movie she wants to see afterward.

Lindsay gets her height from her parents. Ann is 5-10 and Wink 6-8. Davenport does that shrinkage thing that some woman athletes do--she fibs about her height, listing it as 6-2 in the WTA media guide. And she slouches to make herself seem smaller.

Pam Shriver, one of the tallest players on the tour at 6-1, said she sees some of herself in Davenport and knows the pain.

"I see her stooping and I want to tell her to straighten up," Shriver said. "I remember when I was 17-18, I wasn't comfortable with my height. I stood out and I was miserable. In public life, you need a thick skin. No way anyone should be anything but nice to her. She's one of the nicest kids on the tour. She's very popular. But you know what? No one's safe. People will pick."

If she is left alone, Davenport's potential may shine through. Navratilova said she thinks Davenport will win a Grand Slam tournament. If Davenport is allowed to be herself, a funny and outgoing person among her friends, then she might be spared tennis' trash heap reserved for teen phenoms.

If no one else gets it, at least she does.

"I'm uncomfortable with the attention," Davenport said. "I'm not really adjusted to the whole scene. I can walk the street and hear people whispering, 'That's Lindsay Davenport.' It makes me so uncomfortable. I don't handle it well. Some people think that's snobby, but it's really because I'm uncomfortable.

"You have to have someone helping you keep a level head. Otherwise, you'd go around thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'm the greatest. I won a tennis match.' The reality is that it doesn't mean anything to 99% of the people in the world."

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