Upcoming tilt between Sharapova and Davenport will answer questions

After an 11-month absence from competitive tennis, Lindsay Davenport's return has been scintillating. She's 19-1 since her return last September. AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill

MELBOURNE -- "Normal" might as well have been Lindsay Davenport's middle name. That's right, Lindsay N. Davenport -- the girl who went to a normal public high school, the woman who seemed to yearn for a normal existence with a husband and dogs and kids even as she won more than 50 titles in 14 years on the WTA trail.

Normal was an adjective applied to her so often it became tiresome, and now, finally, it can be put to rest. Nothing about Davenport's career has been remotely close to normal -- neither the lengthy first act nor the seamless success of her comeback following the birth of her son in June.

Davenport left normal in the dust in her first-round match at the Australian Open, even as she struggled with the wind, a pesky Italian player and a chair umpire whose judgment she questioned. She eclipsed Steffi Graf in prize winnings Monday to become the all-time top breadwinner in women's sports with $21,897,501. Fittingly, Davenport's second-round opponent will not be the garden variety player she's accustomed to facing in the first week of a Grand Slam.

The upcoming tilt against No. 5 Maria Sharapova should be revealing about where both players stand. Davenport, ranked 51st with a bullet, has won three of the four tournaments she's entered since she came back to the tour late in 2007, but she's only faced one top-five player, Jelena Jankovic, along the way.

Davenport misstated the mathematics of the matchup at first, saying she hadn't yet played a woman in the top five, then quickly corrected herself, noting that Sharapova is the first Slam winner she will have played since her return.

"There's a chance maybe I was already looking ahead at that matchup," Davenport admitted. "You can never, ever do that in this sport."

Sharapova is finally healthy again after a year of back-and-forth with a tender shoulder -- a year that kicked off with a merciless battering in the final here by Serena Williams. A billboard-sized photo of the two women outside the main concourse of Rod Laver Arena is worth 100,000 words. Williams' face is suffused with competitive joy; Sharapova looks almost wistful, with a hint of suppressed anger, at herself, no doubt.

Seeing Davenport skulking so early in her draw might have caused a more fragile player to hide under the bed, but if Sharapova was cursing her bad luck, she hid it well.

"If I can't beat them in the second round, I can't beat them at all," she said evenly.

Sharapova might not be so philosophical if she hadn't ended last year on an upbeat note, charging to the finals of the year-end championship in Madrid against No. 1 Justine Henin. Even though Henin outlasted her in a brutally long match, Sharapova went home with renewed confidence.

"The whole week was just, you know, a great relief for me because I was very close to just saying a few weeks before that, this was not my year, it's just been really frustrating and difficult," she said.

"I just thought of maybe going on vacation. But I kept going. I kept working. And even though I lost that match, I had a really good week. You know, I played really solid tennis. I was able to have a vacation without thinking how the next year's going to start.''

Davenport couldn't ask for a better gauge of her form than the woman who belts balls back at her with equal pace and who is, as Davenport reminded reporters, one of the few active players with a winning record (4-1) against her.

"It will be interesting," Davenport said. "I'm gonna have to definitely hit the ball well, be more aggressive than I was today, just basically do everything a lot cleaner."

Sharapova knows the two women are essentially starting fresh.

"It's going to be very important to serve well and return well and hopefully get a good hit on the first ball," she said. "This is a completely different match. We haven't played in a while. It's going to be a new match."

The $25,284 Davenport picked up for beating Sara Errani 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 was among the hardest-earned change she's ever pocketed. Davenport cruised through the first set but she lost her rhythm and labored through the second. Late in a tense third set, she lost her composure, and in a very un-Lindsay-like episode, argued French chair umpire Emmanuel Joseph's overrule so vociferously that a crowd inclined to love her began to boo.

"Are you crazy?" an infuriated Davenport yelped at one point. "I don't think this is fair. You're not doing a fair job out here." Later, she said she thought Joseph "choked'' and made the call to fit an incorrectly announced score.

The incident made it clear that Davenport is not just content to do a happy stroller lap around the WTA circuit this season. Holding a trophy in one arm and a baby in the other in Bali and Quebec City and Auckland has been fun and all, but this is Melbourne, the place where she won her last Slam in 2000, and the expectations she has of herself have sprouted like early spring bulbs.

Davenport said 7-month-old Jagger woke her up at 5 a.m. crying his way out of a bad dream. "I should have read more into that than I did," she said.

The Errani match tape isn't one she's likely to show her son when he's old enough to understand what Mom did for a living, but she demonstrated as much champion's grit by sticking it out as she has in mowing down Errani on the two previous occasions they've played -- most recently last week.

As Sharapova said, she and Davenport are "in completely different stages in our career. Obviously she loves tennis very much. It's obviously very difficult to have a baby and be back so soon. So, you know, her love and passion for the sport is pretty great. It's wonderful to see someone who has already accomplished so much still going back and giving it all she has."

The Russian has to try to derail that inspirational story, while Davenport will need to manage self-inflicted pressure and live in the present. That doesn't seem to be a problem off the court.

"It's so hard for me to comment about before [motherhood]," she said. "I mean, it's just the way it is now. I'm ecstatic. I can't believe I'm lucky enough to have him, still be able to play tennis.''

She's come a long way already, baby. Australia is bringing out an old desire in a new woman, and after all is said and done, that's not an abnormal reaction.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.