The 2/21: Davenport and Rubin ruminate on their 1996 Aussie Open final

The 2/21: Davenport and Rubin ruminate on their 1996 Aussie Open final

It's been 25 years since the Americans faced off against each other in doubles. Cue a trip down memory lane.

Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.

To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).

“OK Chanda, how old do you feel when I say that it’s 25 years ago?”

That’s how Lindsay Davenport kicked off her Instagram Live with good friend and fellow Tennis Channel analyst Chanda Rubin. They signed on to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their 1996 Australian Open doubles final, a fun trip down memory lane, considering that their friendship stretches all the way back to their junior days.

Both Americans were just 19 years old when they took the court in Melbourne with more experienced partners. Rubin was paired with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who had reached No. 1 in singles and doubles, and would win 10 Grand Slams over her decorated career. 

How did the teen end up with a living legend? 

“She asked,” Rubin said. “It was as simple as that. That was the first time we played together.”

Rubin and Sanchez-Vicario played each other for the seventh time, and teamed up for the first time, at the 1996 Australian Open. (Getty Images)

But it wasn't the first time they played each other. Just days earlier, in the singles quarterfinals, Rubin notched her third consecutive win over Sanchez-Vicario in a 6-4, 2-6, 16-14 marathon. It was their seventh meeting, with the Spaniard taking the first four contests, all in straight sets. Rubin would lose to eventual champion Monica Seles.

“It was my best Grand Slam, and to be in the semis of the singles and doubles was incredible," Rubin said.

Davenport had reached the Roland Garros doubles final two years prior, while her partner Mary Joe Fernandez had appeared in three Grand Slams singles finals, won the Australian Open doubles title in 1991, and was an Olympic doubles gold medalist in Barcelona in 1992.

Rubin was also friends with Fernandez, as they'd been on the 1995 Fed Cup team together, with Davenport. All of the close relationships made the dynamics of the doubles final all the more challenging. 

“It was strange, first of all, to be in a major final, which is a big moment, but then to have to play your friends on top of it,” Rubin said. “And I have to say, Arantxa was so helpful because she just kept me focused and plugged in.

"I just kept my eye on what I was needing to do tennis-wise and not thinking so much about being friends.”

Seeded No. 8 in Melbourne, Rubin and Sanchez-Vicario won their first three matches in straight sets, and their last three in deciders. (Getty Images)

Though Davenport said she has the memory of an elephant, the details of this particular loss escapes her. Champions are great at forgetting the bad moments, after all. 

“I have these visions. I remember losing, I remember being super upset, and I think, for some reason, it was dark in there, but I could be wrong,” Davenport said. “I thought the roof was closed.” (The Australian Open revealed the first-of-its-kind roofed tennis stadium roof eight years prior.)

Davenport would go on to win three singles and three doubles Grand Slams, while the 1996 Australian Open stands as Rubin’s best career performance. She had to shake off her disappointment of losing to Seles after leading in the third, yet she managed to zone in on what was still in front of her. 

“A win is a win, so it was a way for me to take the disappointment of the singles and transfer that to the doubles," Rubin said. “It was a little bit shocking for me to actually be holding up the trophy at the end of those two weeks, and having played my partner in the quarterfinals, in the singles, for us to regroup and recover and still be friends and be able to play and come together, it was just all kind of surreal.”

On the singles court, Rubin beat Davenport just once in seven meetings, but it was a big win: the 2002 Los Angeles final. (Getty Images)

In the summer of 1996, Davenport, Fernandez, Seles and Rubin would reunite to suit up for Team USA at the Summer Games in Atlanta. Rubin didn't end up competing due to injury, but she still soaked in the Olympic experience. Davenport won the gold medal—beating Vicario in the final—while Fernandez won gold in doubles (with Gigi Fernandez).

Before signing off, Rubin and Davenport had to discuss the 2021 Australian Open. Rubin has her eye on the “usual suspects” Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka to take the titles. 

“[Osaka] has looked so solid through tough moments," Rubin said. "You think about everything she did last year and how she still won the US Open, and the statements she made. And she just seems to understand herself and who she is and what she stands for.”

“Well, I'm 44 and I haven't figured that out yet," Davenport joked.

Hear more from Rubin on her episode of the Podcast: