The big girl came running. Martina Hingis had chipped this looping, desperate drop shot, and Lindsay Davenport charged in. She moved easily, light on her feet almost, and waited for the ball, the moment, to bounce to her level. This was the kill. It was 3:15 p.m. on a blazing New York Saturday, and she had just carried a 15-stroke rally, six years of searching, a generation of American hopes and the 1998 U.S. Open final on her back to the net. But Davenport wasn't out of breath. She hammered a backhand, and the ball launched off her racket into open space. Hingis, the No. 1 player in the world, didn't even swing at it. Davenport began to scream, and the chair umpire declared, "Game, set and match, Davenport, 6-3, 7-5," but their voices got swallowed by the wave of happy noise coursing through Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was a good dream and an old nightmare all at once. Everyone was looking at the big girl now.
"I don't really think I can say how it feels for me," Davenport told the crowd minutes later during the awards ceremony. "I never thought I'd win it here."
Who did? Women's tennis had inspired plenty of overheated expectations for 1998, but few saw the Grand Slam season ending this way. This was the year when Hingis was supposed to consolidate her reign as the next Chris Evert, when Venus and Serena Williams would begin their loudly proclaimed conquest of the world, when Anna Kournikova would break out as a supermodel in sneakers. This year's Open was supposed to be the playground for the look-at-me generation, not a 22-year-old woman whose wish for the longest time was to go unnoticed. "I wasn't a perfect thing at 17," Davenport said last Saturday evening. "I didn't have confidence. I was hunched over and real embarrassed, and I didn't want to be in the limelight. But it changed over time. The last couple of years I've gained a lot of confidence. That's the most exciting thing: how much I've had to change to win."
Such an unexpected turn makes perfect sense at Flushing Meadows. Buffeted this year by thunderstorms, heat waves, temperatures in the 50s and a constant wind swirling through Ashe Stadium, the U.S. Open served its usual role as the sport's fun-house mirror, exaggerating frailties, trends, judgments and failures. The usual suspects—Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Steffi Graf—suddenly seemed tired and adrift. Number 1 Pete Sampras, coming off a Wimbledon title, pulled up lame in his semifinal against defending champion Patrick Rafter, raising eyebrows and questions when he lost to Rafter for the second time in four weeks. Then after Rafter followed with a near-perfect 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 dismantling of fellow digger Mark Philippoussis in Sunday's Spice Boy final, it wasn't hard to imagine a new era of rivalries energizing the men's game.
Although the astonishingly talented Philippoussis may yet prove his New York run to be just the latest in a series of teases, no one can say he doesn't have a role model. After Rafter won here last year, he fell into a funk culminating in John McEnroe's musing at the French Open that he could well be a "one-Slam wonder." At the time, Rafter says, "I thought he was probably right." But a mighty run through the hard-court summer, with two tournament victories in August, boosted his confidence, and Rafter tore through the Open's second week so smoothly that it was clear he's already comfortable with his place as the sport's newest superstar. He committed only five unforced errors in the final and no longer has any qualms about serving notice on Sampras. "These last few months have really scared me," Rafter said as he rode into Manhattan on Sunday night. "People ask me if I can be Number 1 in the world, and the answer is, 'Yeah, it's possible.' I never would've said that at this time last year. But I've seen a lot of things go down. If I can repeat at the U.S. Open, then anything can happen."
Believe it. Before this summer Lindsay Davenport was nobody's idea of a tennis champion, much less a carefree force who could bull through the draw without dropping a set, prove herself cooler under pressure than the usually icy Hingis and threaten to make the rest of 1998 a battle for No. 1 with all the intrigue of the men's dogfight (Davenport trails Hingis by 146 points; Rafter is within 440 of Sampras). When Davenport was a child, no one dubbed her America's next great player, but here she is now: the first US.-born woman to win the Open since Evert in '82. "No one ever said anything about me," Davenport said after dismantling Venus Williams 6-4, 6-4 in the semis. "I was never a prodigy."
Standing 6'2�" and en route to eventually tipping the scales at 200 pounds, Davenport broke onto the scene late and large in 1993, a 16-year-old baseliner with refreshingly balanced priorities but neither the mobility nor the will to challenge for major titles. The product of 6'8" Wink and 5'10" Ann Davenport, Lindsay was at the time still adjusting to a nearly six-inch growth spurt over the previous two years. She'd transferred from Chadwick High in Palos Verdes, Calif., to Murrieta Valley High that year, but it wasn't until she beat Gabriela Sabatini a few months later in the Virginia Slims of Florida that anyone at school knew she played tennis. "I always tried to hide the fact that I was an athlete," Davenport said. "I just wanted to be normal."
Tennis being the closest thing sports has to a gossipy, clique-ridden high school, players made fun of Davenport's body behind her back. She hunched over, bent a knee, wore flats—anything to look shorter. Ann would poke her in the back to remind her to stand up straight. She was a fine volleyer, but nothing draws more attention, and risks more humiliation, than patrolling the net, so she stuck to the baseline. Opponents learned to drop shot her—as Hingis did at match point—because they knew she wouldn't come in. "I was embarrassed to," Davenport said. "I wouldn't have gotten that ball a couple of years ago."
By the end of 1995 she was miserable. She envied the way Venus, 6'1�" and proud of it, carried herself. Her parents' 28-year marriage had crumbled, her coaching was in flux, and when, heavier than ever, she lost a first-round match in the WTA Tour Championships that November because of back trouble and dropped out of the Top 10, Davenport knew it was time to get in shape. She hired former tour pro Robert Van't Hof, a longtime adviser, to travel with her and oversee her training regimen. She began running sprints. She dropped 30 pounds over the next two years, and as her self-consciousness diminished, she found herself closing out matches instead of panicking. She began picking up big wins this year—against Hingis in Tokyo and Graf at Indian Wells—then went on a blistering roll through the hard-court season, winning three tournaments and becoming the tour's hottest player.
"Before she would be very moody; you would just see on her face that she was not happy with what she was doing, and she would give up much easier," Hingis said last Saturday. "She's mentally so much stronger."