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July 01 2003
Miami Herold

Lindsay Davenport did not actually utter the `R' word Tuesday night, but as she waved goodbye to the fans on Centre Court, it hit her like a Venus Williams forehand that she might not be back at Wimbledon.

"Time's running out," Davenport said when asked if she had another Grand Slam title in her.

"We'll see," she said when asked if she would play at Wimbledon next year. "I'm not saying `Oh, it's over.' I'm just saying I'm not sure anymore."

Retirement might be a good thing for Davenport. She had knee surgery last year and expects to have foot surgery in November. Even with her left foot pumped full of cortisone, as it is now, it hurts to walk.

But Davenport's retirement would not be a good thing for tennis. She's a buoy of normality in an ocean of shipwrecks. She's a peanut butter sandwich on a shelf of pate. She's smart, unpretentious, honest. She graduated from public high school - an extremely routine rite of passage, unless you're a tennis player.

Tennis, as an entertainment industry, has its fair share of damaged people. The stakes are so high, the players so young, the sport so global, the season so relentless that the players tend to live in cocoons, surrounded by parents (who often give up their jobs to chaperone the golden child), coaches, agents.

Even Andre Agassi, who has matured into one of the most thoughtful athletes in all of sports, has a haunted look in his eye when he recalls the days his father strapped a racquet to his hand, pushed the ball machine as close to the net as possible, set it on high power and aimed it at his son.

Martina Hingis has been hanging around the players' terrace here with all the other tanned people talking on cell phones. She smiles and accepts kisses on the cheek. Her ankles are shot and her game has never been the same since she blew up against Steffi Graf in the 1999 French Open, yet she lingers. Pete Sampras cannot bring himself to officially retire even though he hasn't played in nine months. It's tough to know what to do next when you're used to having an itinerary and a passport in your pocket every day.

Davenport knows the end is near, and she's willing to confront it. She's won three Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon in 1999. She's been No. 1. She's earned $15 million. But after 10 years on the tour, her body and her mind are rebelling against the tyranny of the green rectangles.

"It just wears on you after a while," Davenport said after losing her quarterfinal match to Williams, 2-6, 6-2, 1-6. "I'm 27. I want to feel like I can keep getting better and I want to feel like I'm one of the top players. I don't want to be six through 20."

Davenport felt discarded last week when Federation Cup captain Billie Jean King e-mailed her to let her know she wouldn't be needed for the upcoming match against Italy. Davenport wanted to arrive on the Tuesday before the weekend match so she could be with her mother when she has knee surgery. Davenport has been a loyal Fed Cup soldier for 10 years and has never asked for any favors - except the extra 24 hours to be with her mom. King said no. Davenport was disappointed.

"It's just a weird feeling," she said. "I feel kind of over it now. I had a lot of good memories. There are other things to concentrate on now."

Like her marriage, her family back home in Southern California, her health. Normal things.

Davenport is not retiring yet.

But when she does she will be clear about the decision.

And tennis will lose a player it needs more than she needs tennis.