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Monday, August 15, 2011
Lauren Davis is a headache for the competition

By Robyn Norwood

SAN DIEGO -- Less than five months ago, Lauren Davis was walloped by a television camera as she waited to be interviewed at a tennis tournament, suffering a concussion that knocked her out of competition for months.

Yet on Sunday at the USTA girls' 18-and-under nationals, she lifted the same ornate silver bowl that Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport and so many others before her had raised.

But the real prize for winning the 18-and-under championship is not a trophy. It is a wild-card spot in the main draw of the U.S. Open.

"That's mainly why I played," said the top-seeded Davis, 17, who took a 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-4 victory over fourth-seed Nicole Gibbs of Stanford University.

The bizarre camera mishap, which happened in April at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., is behind her, she said, though she occasionally gets migraine headaches.

"It was a windy day, and a whole big camera just blew onto my head," said Davis, a 5-foot-2, 121-pound package of relentlessness on the court who was no match for the piece of electronics. She was unconscious for a few seconds, but the worst came later.

"I didn't do anything physical for a long time," she said. "I didn't read anything. The only thing I could do was watch TV, eat and sleep.

"I had a headache, 24-7, that never went away."

She finally returned to the court about 2½ months ago and has since won USTA professional circuit events in Atlanta and Buffalo.

Davis will turn 18 in October and has been a professional since January. That makes her different from some of the junior champions of the past who made a splash at the Open. (In recent years, professionals have been allowed to compete in the USTA nationals as long as they are age-eligible.)

Evert was a 16-year-old amateur in 1971 when she won the 18-and-under title and wowed the Open crowds by reaching the semifinals.

Austin, the 1977 junior champion, reached the quarterfinals of the Open at 14 and won the tournament two years later.

Andrea Jaeger won the junior title in 1979, and Jennifer Capriati won it in 1989.

Davenport won it at 15 in 1991 and finally won the Open in 1998.

The player Davis thinks of, though, is Melanie Oudin, who never won the junior singles title -- she won doubles in 2007 -- but inspired Davis when she reached the quarterfinals of the Open in 2009.

"She was my age, 17," Davis said. "She got in as a qualifier."

The most recent success is Christina McHale, the 2009 18-and-under winner who reached the second round of the Open and is now No. 76 in the WTA rankings.

Not every junior champion becomes a pro star.

Among the largely forgotten is Amber Liu, who won the 2001 junior title and went on to become a two-time NCAA singles champion at Stanford but never ranked higher than No. 241 in the world. She is now better known as the wife of retired tennis star Michael Chang and is recognized as a donor at the Barnes Tennis Center in San Diego, where the girls' 16-and-under and 18-and-under championships were held.

Davis is battling to find her place in pro tennis. Punching her ticket to the Open by winning the junior title will make a difference in her wallet, as well as on her résumé. She'll make $19,000 at the Open just for a first-round loss.

Even with sponsors Nike and Wilson behind Davis, travel expenses make it difficult for a fledgling pro to make a go of it financially. So far this year, she has $35,049 in winnings and is at No. 331 in the WTA rankings.

"My agent said we're getting close to breaking even," she said, before the guaranteed $19,000 payday.

A large chunk of her earnings came at the Australian Open, where Davis earned a spot in the main draw by winning a USTA wild-card playoff.

Her reward? She faced Australia's Sam Stosur, a top-10 player, on a court named for Rod Laver.

"A few people cheered for me. Out of like, thousands," said Davis, who lost 6-1, 6-1.

She's likely to have more in her corner as an American who figures to face a seeded player in New York.

Born in Cleveland, the daughter of a heart surgeon and a nurse, Davis showed the determination that marks her game from early on.

"She was born with it," said her mother, Traci, a USTA league player who occasionally paced barefoot in the spectators' area as she watched Lauren come back for a tight third-set win at the 18-and-under nationals.

"She played soccer before she played tennis, and she would cover the whole field," Traci said. "When the girls weren't covering their positions, she went back and played their positions.

"She was like, 'Mom, they're not trying out there.' She was 8 years old when she was talking like that. The team sports, she loved them, but I had to make her decide. I said, 'Pick, I can't do both.' It could have been soccer."

Davis' opponent in the 18-and-under final, Gibbs, remembers those days, too. Before Gibbs' family moved from the Cleveland area to Southern California for her high school years, she and Davis were teammates on a youth soccer team.

"She was always an unbelievable athlete," Gibbs said with a measure of grace as she struggled to get over losing in the final for the second year in a row. "I didn't know much about the relentlessness and character until I saw her on the tennis court.

"She's very scrappy. She's never going to give you a free point. When you have to work that hard for every point, it's mentally very challenging to stay on top of someone like that."

Davis left Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, Ohio, near Cleveland, during her sophomore year to relocate to the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla. She studies online and expects to earn her high school diploma in 2012.

A two-time USTA 16-and-under champion, Davis also won the Orange Bowl junior tournament in 2010.

Her coach on the road since March, Jacopo Tezza, wants her to become more offensive and work on her serve. He said Davis has one irreplaceable quality.

"It's something you can't teach. She's a fighter, and she doesn't go down easily," he said.

"Her main characteristic is being extremely solid from the baseline. Our goal is to be the toughest player out there. We want to break everybody down mentally."

Stella Sampras, the UCLA women's coach and sister of Pete Sampras, on hand to scout young players for UCLA, noted the same.

"She's a grinder," Sampras said. "You see her play, she's a short player who just runs down every ball but also can hit the ball -- she gets a lot on her shots. Just seeing her stature and everything, she fights for every point.

"You hit a winner against her, she doesn't waver. If she gets down, she never panics."

Wearing a pink Nike outfit with her long hair in a thick braid as she texts before a match, Davis doesn't look intimidating, not at a couple of inches over 5 feet.

On the court, she becomes so.

"I think she hates to lose more than she loves to win," her mother said.