02/22/1998 By Berry Tramel Staff Writer
Lindsay Davenport took the road less traveled. She went to high school. What is a given for most American teen-agers is a novelty in women's tennis. Players like Tracy Austin and Jennifer Capriati joined the professional tour full time, worrying about two-handed backhands at the age most girls worry about their first sock-hop. Davenport didn't join the crowd, even though she had the potential to be one of the world's best players. She didn't leave Murietta Valley (Calif.) High School for the tour; she didn't take on tutors or home-schooling. When she traveled to tournaments, she often was on her own, her parents having decided they weren't going to be a tennis mom or dad, since they had jobs and other children to care for. It has worked. Davenport has become the poster child for all tennis prodigies who want a normal life. At 21, Davenport has risen to the No. 2 ranking in the world. She already has an Olympic gold medal and 13 tour titles. And her 4-5 career record against the latest phenom, No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis, promises an interesting rivalry in the next few years. ''I don't regret anything that's happened,'' Davenport said. Davenport is in Oklahoma City this week to defend her title in the IGA Classic at The Greens. Davenport broke out of a slump with the IGA title in February 1997 and went on to win five more tour events. Earlier this month, she beat Hingis 6-3, 6-3 to win the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. The master plan, if that's what it was, is playing out. ''I was never going to quit school,'' Davenport said. ''You see so many girls (on tour) that don't get past 12 or 13 in school. They say they learn a lot on the road. ''But I never wanted to, so it wasn't even discussed.'' By the time she was 20, Davenport was mature, confident -- and not burned out. ''Earlier in my career, when I was playing on the tour, I was still going to high school,'' Davenport said. ''Tennis wasn't my 100 percent job. I was still going to school from 8 to 12 every day and never had time for everything.'' She graduated in June 1994, but later that year her parents divorced, which was a difficult time, ''and my concentration and my game was not solely on my tennis. There was just a lot of other things going on. ''I think when I turned 20, I matured a lot and really went into tennis 100 percent.'' Her physical conditioning improved. Her work ethic increased. She stayed on her diet. She began to reach more balls and hit them better when she did. ''With tennis and traveling so much, it is not like you have five months where you can just train really hard and get in great shape, because you have to worry about tournaments and playing,'' Davenport said. And now she is poised to take the next steps; a Grand Slam singles title, to go with her two doubles titles. A No. 1 ranking. Standing in the way of the latter, and probably the former for the next few years, is the 17-year-old Hingis, a Swiss resident who has won four of the last five Grand Slam championships. ''Every time I play Martina, I feel like I have a chance to win,'' Davenport said. ''But it is tough. I mean, she has so many consistent results over the whole year, winning Grand Slams, winning tournaments. ''I was pretty surprised on how well she dominated last year at such a young age, and she doesn't really have the game like Steffi (Graf) or Monica (Seles) did, which is just real forceful when they dominated the game. ''So I think Martina was almost a breath of fresh air. She has a lot more touch and gets a lot more balls in. I don't think she is going to be able to do it for, let us say, the five or six years that some of the other players were able to do it. I think the competition is a little greater now. ''I don't see her losing only five matches for four, five years in a row. I think that was phenomenal last year.'' But so was Davenport. And she is back in Oklahoma City as a way of saying thanks for launching her successful 1997 season. She entered the IGA late last year, when it appeared she would have a four-week layoff. ''My game really turned around,'' she said. ''I gained a lot of confidence. I came back out of loyalty. I played well, the crowd was great. I just wanted to come back and say thank you.''