Tennis: Mum Lindsay in relaxed mood

By Michael Brown

When the draw was made yesterday for this week's ASB Classic, there was one unseeded player everyone was hoping to avoid - Lindsay Davenport.

Although she's ranked a lowly 72 in the world these days, the 31-year-old is by far the most successful, famous and richest of any of the 32 players who will line up at the Auckland tournament.

"Lindsay Davenport," top seed Vera Zvonareva put at the top of her list when asked who the favourite for the title was. Few would have disagreed.

"I don't see myself as the favourite," Davenport said with a shrug of the shoulders. "In my mind I'm not. In my mind I'm the underdog now."

Perhaps, but the tall American warrants her favouritism.

Not only is she a three-time grand slam winner, a former world No 1 and only US$40,000 from becoming the most successful player in the history of women's tennis, but she has also won two out of three tournaments she has entered since her return to tennis following the birth of her first child seven months ago.

Davenport is a likeable character - in 2000 she was recognised for being the friendliest and most approachable player on the women's tour to go with her other accolades for sportsmanship and contributions to the game - but there's nothing like the arrival of a child to bring perspective in life.

"It seems like a lot more fun and enjoyable now to play than it has ever been," she says as qualifying goes on behind her at the ASB Tennis Centre. "My life is not about tennis, it's like my fun time now in tennis.

"It doesn't feel like a job, it doesn't feel like I have a lot of the pressure that I put on myself, and others. It's really just playing for fun because there's really nothing more I need to prove. I'm doing it because I'm good at it and I'm enjoying it."

When she discovered she was pregnant, however, Davenport thought that would be the end of her illustrious career. It wasn't until she went to the Indian Wells tournament in March, when she was seven months pregnant, that she began to realise she missed tennis and wondered if she could make a comeback.

It's not like she had others to seek advice from. There's only one other mother on tour, 19th-ranked Austrian Sybille Bammer, who was well down the rankings when she gave birth to a child in 2001, and few others have done it in the past.

The bevy of teenagers and twenty-somethings that have rolled into Auckland this week are far removed from Davenport's existence of changing nappies and changing ends.

"I'm sure they don't comprehend my life," she says quietly as 20-year-old Russian Maria Kirilenko wanders by. "When I was 19 or 20 there was no way I thought I would have a baby and come back and play. When you're young, tennis is a big deal. It's different for me now."

Despite this, Davenport was more nervous than usual when she stepped back onto the court for her first tournament in Bali, only 11 weeks after Jagger was born.

"I really didn't know what was going to come of it," she says. "I was really nervous for that first tournament. I remember thinking, 'I don't want to bomb. It would be a horrible story if I came back and didn't do well'. Once I got the first two matches under my belt, it feels like it couldn't have gone any better."

It couldn't. She notched up wins over 2007 ASB Classic champion Jelena Jankovic, Daniela Hantuchova, Elena Dementieva and Zvonareva. Her only defeat was to Jankovic in the semifinal of the Beijing tournament.

At this stage, Davenport has committed to tennis only until the US Open in August.

By then Jagger, who travels with Davenport on tour, will be 15 months and mobile.

It's this uncertainty that will mean large numbers of Auckland tennis fans will hope Davenport progresses through to the latter stages of the tournament.

The draw avoided pitting her against one of the seeded players and instead she will meet fellow American Laura Granville before a likely meeting with fifth seed Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round.

Davenport is on the opposite side of the draw to top seed Zvonareva, who will play New Zealand No 2 and wildcard Sacha Jones.

New Zealand is guaranteed to have some presence in the second round with Marina Erakovic and Ellen Barry drawn to meet each other.

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