During the past two years, Serena and Venus Williams have taken over the women's game. This season, with Martina Hingis out for ankle surgery and Davenport missing because of knee surgery, the talent disparity has become apparent even to the players on tour.
"Serena and Venus - they're just lifting the game to a whole 'nother level," said Chanda Rubin, whose next opponent is Venus Williams, the two-time defending U.S. Open champion. "The rest of us, we either need to step up or step back and let them through."
Since Serena won the U.S. Open here in 1999, the sisters have won seven of 12 Grand Slams. This year, only Jennifer Capriati's win at the Australian Open has prevented a Williams sweep of the majors going into this last Grand Slam of the year.
Now Hingis is back, but still in need of a bigger, stronger serve. No one is expecting her to stop them. Not here, anyway. But Davenport is another story. It is Davenport whom the other competitors are looking at as a stopper
Last night, at the end of a rain delay that lasted nearly 24 hours, Davenport moved a step closer to a showdown. She beat Silvia Elia, 6-3, 6-1, to move into the quarterfinals. One more victory and she could meet Serena Williams in the semifinals.
"I've heard that," said Davenport, when asked whether she has heard other players are looking at her to stop the Williamses. "I just say back to them, 'Well, you could have done it when I was gone.' I don't look at it like I'm the one that's supposed to do it. There are 126 other players in the draw. The responsibility is shared equally."
All Davenport is thinking these days is that she is back. It was a long time from last November to her return from knee surgery at the Fed Cup July 20.
When she walked on court here for her first U.S. Open match last week, it was her first Grand Slam tournament appearance since this Open a year ago.
During that time, she has cried over the prospect of the knee surgery, been bummed out when the knee did not recover in time to play in Australia and rejoiced as her hard work began to pay off.
Davenport was the No. 1 player at the end of 2001, but since then, Serena Williams has taken the No. 1 spot and Venus the No. 2. Capriati, who moved into the quarterfinals with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Amy Frazier last night, is No. 3.
Davenport returns as the No. 4 with a trimmer physique and a stronger desire to win.
That desire was obvious last night. After losing her opening serve to Elia, the 13th seed, she dropped just two more games the entire match. "I don't ever remember being in that situation, where you're told to go out without a warm-up," said Davenport, whose match was rushed onto the Arthur Ashe court after a 6 1/2 -hour rain delay. "It was hard for me to get going, after sitting around in the rain for two days, but I expected the slow start. Once I got back to 2-2, I felt much better. ... Obviously, now, I'm very relieved it's over."
Her next opponent will be Elena Bovina, a 7-6 (4), 6-4 winner over Francesca Schiavone.
"I don't think I'm playing my best yet," Davenport said. "But it's been very difficult conditions, and I don't think you can expect to be at the top of your game given the circumstances. But things could get better."
Sitting on the sidelines, assessing what she would face when she returned to the tour, Davenport has come back in what appears to be the best condition of her career.
"Yeah, I tried real hard to get stronger and at the same time get fitter," she said. "I tried not to worry about losing body weight, but I was still able to lose 8 pounds.
"When I was on crutches for eight weeks, I definitely went on a diet because I knew I would probably gain weight. I tried really hard there. Once I started playing again, I was able to keep it off and build some more muscle back."
It wasn't easy. While on crutches, she was unable to walk, let alone run. Every day her surgically repaired leg was in a machine for eight hours. "I did aqua jogging," she said. "Every hour I spent in the pool, I could minus from the machine. I would, some days, try to spend two hours in the pool. I was always doing arm weights, always lifting pretty regularly on that. I was trying to, you know, follow somewhat of a diet while I was on crutches just so I just wouldn't gain weight."
The results have meant fewer niggling injuries since her return and quicker recovery from matches.
Not that she needed that quick recovery before last night's match. Rain has delayed so many matches, the tournament schedule was nearly a full day and a half behind by late yesterday afternoon. But she'll need it now.
"From here on, the matches will definitely start to get tougher," Davenport said. "You just have to keep raising your level each round to overcome it. You can see Serena and Venus have been playing on a level above us. It means a lot of hard work if one or two of us is going to upend them."