By Pam Lambert
September 28, 1998 12:00 PM

Trying to focus in the locker room an hour before her U.S. Open tennis final against defending champ Martina Hingis on Sept. 12, Lindsay Davenport got a phone call. It was from her close friend Mary Joe Fernandez, who had played in the finals of the French Open in 1993—and lost. “She said, ‘I always thought I’d be back in a Grand Slam final and I’d have another chance—and I never did. So you better take advantage of this one,’ ” Davenport recalls. “She said, ‘You’ve got to believe in yourself.’ ”

Davenport took the advice to heart—and onto the court, where the 22-year-old Californian handily defeated Hingis, 6-3, 7-5, to capture her first Grand Slam. In the process she also became the first U.S.-born woman to take the title since Chris Evert in 1982. “When I hit a winner on match point and heard the roar of the crowd, I started crying,” says Davenport, whose triumph was witnessed by a gallery including her mother, Ann, 58, and sisters Leiann, 38, and Shannon, 25. “The minutes after the match were mind-blowing. I felt like the crowd wanted me to win. And when it happened, I thought I had done something to make everybody there happy.”

It was a victory few would have envisioned two years ago. Certainly Davenport wouldn’t have. Branded a perennial also-ran by those who weren’t calling her something worse—like “Dump Truck”—she was an ungainly six-footer in a sea of sleek, confident teenagers. “I had a hard time about getting down on myself,” Davenport admits. “But I didn’t one bit this whole tournament, and that’s really what made the difference.” It also didn’t hurt that Davenport “showed us that she’s a lot more fit than she ever has been,” says tennis champ-turned-commentator Chris Evert. “And when she sets up, she hits as hard and heavy a ball as anyone out there.”

From the start, Davenport was never a typical teen phenom, the pressured surrogate of overbearing parents. The youngest of three girls in a family of volleyball players—father Wink, 56, an engineer, was a member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, and her mother now serves as president of the Southern California Volleyball Association—Lindsay started tennis lessons at 6 in her hometown of Palos Verdes, Calif., as “something for me to do after school.” When she chose to continue, first at a nearby clinic run by Robert Lansdorp, Tracy Austin’s former coach, Davenport says her parents were encouraging but “never pushed me at all.”

As a budding player, Davenport’s “best asset was that she had an uncanny ability to pick apart the games of the other kids,” says coach Dan Johnson, who assisted Lansdorp. “Even though she felt awkward and self-conscious, there was great confidence in her game.” Davenport was sure enough of herself to turn pro at 16 in the spring of 1993. By the time she graduated from high school the following year, with a B-plus average, her blistering ground strokes had lifted her into the Top 10.

Soon afterward, the road became rockier. With her parents’ marriage souring, an unhappy Davenport turned to food. “It was very hard to concentrate on tennis,” she says. “My parents were married for 26 years, and all of a sudden they’re not speaking. It hurt all three of us. I was worried about my mom being alone.”

Davenport bought a Mediterranean-style four-bedroom home in Newport Beach, Calif., and invited Ann to be her roommate. (They share their quarters with a 6-year-old German shepherd-rottweiler mix named Riley and a rottweiler pup, Zoltan.) She also made a renewed commitment to her sport by training fulltime with coach Robert Van’tHof. Seven months before her surprise gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, he got her launched on a healthier diet—no fried foods and smaller servings of favorites like her mother’s beef stroganoff—and a new workout regimen including basketball and agility drills. “She just moves better,” says Van’tHof of his pupil, who trimmed some 30 pounds off her 6’2½” frame (to a current 175). “And when you move better, you get more balls back. It improves everything.”

Maybe even Davenport’s mental toughness. While friends and family say she remains the relaxed, unassuming person who’s likely to spend some of her scant free time playing peekaboo with her 13-month-old niece or hitting the mall, on the court lately it’s a whole new game. Approaching the Open, Davenport had won three of her last four tournaments, including a victory over Hingis in Los Angeles in August. “Underneath that sweet little exterior,” says Ann Davenport, “there’s a Lindsay that does not like to lose.”

Pam Lambert

Sue Miller in New York City, Ron Arias in Newport Beach and Fannie Weinstein in Miami