Doubles veteran Leach has family tie to Davenport

WIMBLEDON, England -- Rick Leach didn't get to see his sister-in-law, Lindsay Davenport, beat Amelie Mauresmo in a singles semifinal match that was moved from Wimbledon's Centre Court to Court 1 after a four-hour rain delay on Thursday, and eventually suspended overnight. It was completed Friday, with Davenport winning, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4, to advance to Saturday's title match against Venus Williams.

Leach, 40, couldn't make it to the Competitors' Guest Box to cheer Davenport on. He is a competitor, too, and was otherwise engaged out on Court 3, where his match in the 35 and Over Gentlemen's Invitation Doubles, a round-robin event, was also interrupted by rain.

Leach has seen a lot of rain delays at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Winner of both the men's and mixed doubles titles in 1990, he competed in the men's doubles here for the 20th consecutive time this year. He has tried retiring from the tour a couple of times, but keeps coming back, and entered the veterans' event this year for the first time to ensure he has chances to keep coming back.

Davenport talked a year ago at Wimbledon about retiring and starting a family with her husband, Jon Leach. He is Rick's brother, an investment banker who played tennis at the University of Southern California, where their father, Dick, was the head tennis coach from 1980 through 2002.

Then Davenport won four consecutive hard-court tournaments before falling in the semifinals of the U.S. Open to Svetlana Kuznetsova, who went on to take the title. Davenport ended the year ranked No. 1 in the world, a position she still holds. Her retirement plans are on indefinite hold.

Davenport, 29, is a doting aunt to 11 nieces and nephews, including Rick's 11-year-old daughter, Paulina (who, in a departure from family tradition, is not interested in tennis).

"Lindsay is always volunteering to babysit," Rick said. "She's really good with kids. I'm sure she's looking forward to that part of her life, having kids of her own, but the way she's playing, it would be stupid to retire. She's playing unbelievably well right now, and she's knocking at the door to win another Grand Slam title. I think players of that caliber, that's why they play. I think she's got a good chance here."

Rick is something of an expert on ambivalence about retirement. He has never been a threat to win major singles championships -- his highest singles ranking was No. 110, in 1987 -- but he has earned more than $4.2 million in prize money, winning 45 tournaments in doubles, reaching the finals of 32 more.

The first four-time Division I All-America selection in both singles and doubles at USC, he retired after the 2000 season to take a position as assistant coach to his father at his alma mater. Then he reconsidered and went back to making a living as a doubles specialist. "I coached Lindsay for four months, two years ago," he said, "but I kind of wanted to start playing again. I had a short retirement."

Earlier this week, he played matches in the men's doubles and the veterans' doubles on the same day. "Travis Parrott and I lost in the second round of the doubles, 7-6 in the fourth set, to [Nenad] Zimonjic and [Leander] Paes. And then a couple of hours later, Gary Donnelly and I played the 35s. We lost, 6-3 in the third. So I played seven sets, which is a lot for a 40-year-old. I was pretty sore the next day."

Leach first played at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club in 1982, in the junior event. "They were still using white balls then," he said. "They didn't switch to yellow until 1984." He warmed up Jimmy Connors before he beat fellow lefty John McEnroe in the 1982 men's singles final.

"Back then, a lot of guys didn't have coaches and hitting partners," Leach said. "I was out there hitting on the practice courts at Aorangi Park, which was called the New Zealand Club then. Jimmy knew I was American. He didn't have anybody. I was a lefty, so he figured, why not? I had watched him growing up, and admired the way he played, so I was pretty nervous just to get on the same court. My first year playing in the men's was 1986, and I've played every year since. So it's kind of nice to make 20 this year."

Every time he comes back, he said, "I get a special feeling competing here. It really is the mecca of tennis. Playing here is such a thrill. I seem to get more nervous playing at Wimbledon than any other tournament, more keyed up. I think that has to do with just being a tennis fan growing up, watching the tournament. It was such a big deal to come over here. It's also good fun to see the different players through the years – all the different champions – and to play a lot of them, too. It's been rewarding."

He has his place in the "Wimbledon Compendium," the 480-page bible of The Championships. In the alphabetically arranged section on "The Champions," his line is two below Rod Laver, the two-time Grand Slammer. The scores of his men's doubles victory with fellow American Jim Pugh over South Africans Pieter Aldrich and Danie Visser, and his mixed doubles triumph with Zina Garrison over Australians John Fitzgerald and Liz Smylie are duly noted. Wimbledon is in its 119th year, and he is at least a sliver of its history.

The doubles and junior and senior matches that occupy the outside courts during the second week at major tournaments are overlooked most places, but not in Britain, at the oldest of championships in the birthplace of tennis. There are long queues of people hoping to get a grounds ticket, even in the tournament's second week.

"It's neat. They seem to really appreciate doubles here. They're great tennis fans in England, and especially here at Wimbledon," Leach said. "To see the people in the lines, camping out overnight, it's a big deal just to get on the grounds here. People who come visit from America don't understand how difficult it is to get a ticket. But once you've seen it, it's unlike any other tournament in the world."

He has seen lots of changes at Wimbledon, but not to its pre-eminent stature.

"I think the balls have gotten heavier. They've gotten fluffier. They're taking pressure out of them. It's gotten slower," Leach said, voicing a belief among many players that conditions have altered the traditional grass-court style of getting to the net as often and as quickly as possible. "I feel it in my arm, which seems to hurt more here than anywhere else. I remember probably 10 years ago, watching the finals at Centre Court, the area where people would serve-and-volley would be worn out. Now the baseline is worn out after a week. So the game has changed in that sense, where guys are able to stay back and win. There's not a lot of pure serve-and-volleyers anymore."

The physical layout and amenities at Wimbledon also have changed markedly, but if anything, the aura of the event has been magnified with global television and media coverage. The Millennium Building, which includes the Media and Broadcast Centers and facilities for players, officials and staff, is on the site of the old Court No. 1, which was replaced in 1997 by a new companion arena to the revered Centre Court

"The old Court 1, it was kind of sad when they got rid of that and made the new stadium," Leach said, echoing the sentiment of many longtime Wimbledon watchers. "I mean, the new stadium is great, but the old Court 1 had a special feel and atmosphere. It felt old-school. It felt like you were playing in a historical landmark – sort of like the Centre Court. No. 1 was a little smaller, a little more quaint. I actually played the doubles final there in 1989, losing to Fitzgerald and [Anders] Jarryd, but I have a lot of good memories of playing on that court. But every year, there have been improvements, and yet they keep the spirit. They have a way of making the grounds feel comfortable, almost like a garden feeling. Maybe that's the grass courts. There's just not as much concrete as other tournaments."

He hopes to keep coming back indefinitely. There is a 45 and over event, too.

"The committee has been nice enough to invite me the last few years, since I turned 35, and I always turned it down because I'm still playing on the regular ATP Tour," Leach said. "But my ranking is going south, so I don't know how much longer I'll be able to do that. I would always come back here at the drop of a hat. It's so much fun. It's nice to be able to play the 35s now, so maybe I can play for 15 more years."

Presumably, Davenport will be retired, with a family, by then.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.