Former World No.1 Lindsay Davenport has cited the legendary Billie Jean King as "the biggest influence on me" in a cover interview for the Spring 2020 edition of ITFWorld.
The American, who won three Grand Slam trophies between 1998 and 2000 and was a four-time Year-End World No.1, finds herself contemplating both past and future in the interview as she reflects on the lessons she took from King when she was younger - and the wisdom she finds herself passing on to the next generation now.
ITFWorld Spring edition is out 🌻🙌— ITF (@ITF_Tennis) March 31, 2020
• Exclusive @LDavenport76 interview
• We hear from Philippe Chatrier Award recipients Manolo Santana and Fred Stolle
• @DavisCupFinals preview
There is much more packed into the 39-page magazine ➡️ https://t.co/P39cIjs9Ja pic.twitter.com/pEj2g2iHAV
Davenport describes King as "this woman who captures the attention of everyone in the room when she walks in", and states: "More than anybody else she has an ability to get through to people and it is hard not to listen to her." King first came into her life as Fed Cup captain in 1995, with Davenport feeling grateful in retrospect for getting the privilege of hanging out one-on-one with her during the competition's weeks, but it's King's words to her before the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games gold medal match that still resonate most.
"Billie took me aside and said, 'You know this is a big deal tomorrow, don't you?'" recalls Davenport. "I had just turned 20 and I was saying things like, 'Yeah, it is so fun here and it's been so great.' She said, 'Yes, that's true, but this is a really big deal in your life. This is life-changing and you’re going to have to learn how to embrace these kinds of moments and not blow them off and be fine with the silver medal.'" The next day, Davenport went out and beat Arantxa Sánchez Vicario 7-6(6), 6-2 to claim gold.
Embracing those moments, Davenport admits, was something she had to learn over the course of a career in which she struggled with self-doubt and was "not as on track as some of the other players". Though she made her Grand Slam debut at the age of 15 at the 1991 US Open, Davenport remembers telling her mother Ann, "I don't belong here" before her first-round match. (Famously hands-off as a tennis parent, her mother simply shrugged and responded: "Well, you are here so you'd better get out there.")
It took Davenport until the age of 22 to win her first major trophy, at the 1998 US Open - an age that in 2020 is now acknowledged as youthful, but in that era was elderly in comparison to 16-year-old Martina Hingis sweeping three Grand Slams the previous year, 17-year-old Venus Williams making the 1997 US Open final on her debut and 17-year-old Serena Williams being crowned the 1999 US Open champion. Davenport, by contrast, admits that she did not make the most of her late teenage years in terms of work between her focus on getting good grades in school and the fact that the game had come "a little bit easy" to her initially.
"Sometimes I wish I could have those years back to say, 'You have this number of years left so bust your bum for this amount of time,'" she says now.
Nonetheless, Davenport was still able to carve out a brilliant career in the end - and one which has enabled her to pass down the kind of wisdom she received from King, both in life and in tennis. When her eight-year-old daughter was assigned a biography-writing task at school, Davenport was horrified to find only eight women - none athletes - on the suggested shortlist of 50 famous names. Encouraging her daughter to write the essay on King anyway, Davenport was able to use her own experience to help: "I got to tell her all about Title IX and prize money."
As the former coach of World No.13 Madison Keys, Davenport also compares notes with the younger American on how far the sport has progressed. "I often tell Madison, 'You have no idea how it was when I played in the 1990s,'" she says, citing historical instances of disrespect from male players towards the women.
Davenport also pays tribute to friends Martina Navratilova and James Blake for teaching her about ongoing injustice in the world, but is optimistic about the progressive path tennis is on. "I do think it is getting better and when you compare tennis to other women's sports, you realise how far ahead tennis is and how great female tennis players have it," she says.