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Capriati counts on fighting spirit

Jennifer Capriati may not even rate a showcourt to display her famous fighting spirit when she plays her first round at Wimbledon.

tennis Updated: Jun 18, 2003 10:05 IST

Jennifer Capriati may not even rate a showcourt to display her famous fighting spirit next week when she plays her first round at Wimbledon against Switzerland's Myriam Casanova.

The 27-year-old American is seeded eight in a draw crowded with talent and will start the tournament deep in the shadow of the Williams sisters and Belgian duo Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters.

Even compatriot Chanda Rubin, who is defending her Wimbledon warm-up Eastbourne title this week, has crept above the former Australian and French Open champion in the rankings despite never progressing beyond a grand slam semi-final.

It is a far cry from two years ago when Capriati was hailed at the All England Club as the all-conquering comeback hero who looked on her way to a Grand Slam of all four top championships, finally putting behind her the wilderness years of teenage rebellion.

With the Australian and French Open titles under her belt Capriati looked invincible but she came down to earth with a thump, outsmarted and outmanoeuvered in the semi-finals by Henin.

It was a big surprise against an emerging talent and in monosyllabic interviews afterwards Capriati's disappointment was almost palpable.

But with characteristic spirit, Capriati resumed her battles, reaching the semi-finals of the U.S. Open, becoming world number one and successfully defending her Australian title in January 2002.

Since then, however, she has had a lean time. She was bothered by sunspots and decided on surgery at the end of last year.

Returning to top-level competition perhaps a little too early, she earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first defending champion in the open era to be knocked out in the first round at the Australian Open.


For a player who had broken so many happier records -- youngest player to reach a professional final at 13 years 11 months, youngest semi-finalist at Wimbledon, youngest woman to surpass $1 million in prize money -- it was a hard blow.

"Probably if I hadn't been the defending champion I wouldn't have shown up. I'm not trying to make excuses but I have to say it had a lot to do with my preparation," a visibly shaken Capriati said after losing 2-6 7-6 6-4 to the 90th-ranked German Marlene Weingartner.

It was an unusual capitulation for a player who a year earlier had staged a remarkable recovery against Martina Hingis in the final, fighting from 6-4 4-0 down and saving four match points to win 4-6 7-6 6-2.

She had followed that victory with a fightback against Clijsters in the French Open final to win 1-6 6-4 12-10 after the longest third set in a women's final in the history of the tournament.

Losing at the 2003 French Open last month proved another blow after a series of encouraging results in the run-up including three semi-final appearances, a final at home in Miami and the quarters in Rome. "I thought I had pretty good chances at the tournament. It goes to show you never know," she said after going down 6-3 4-6 6-3 to Nadia Petrova in the fourth round.

"I'm very disappointed. I've been working so hard."

Hard work and battling have been the American's watchwords since her comeback. She spent two years completely off the circuit in the mid-1990s during which she fell out with her coach and father Stefano and was picked up by police for drugs and shoplifting offences.

The girl whose childhood had been stolen by tennis was making her adolescence count and few expected her back on court.

But she confounded the commentators and slowly worked her way back. "You know sometimes it just has to take that extreme to be able to come back totally the other way," she said recently.

Reconciled with her father and training hard, Capriati is warming up her grass skills in the sea air on the south coast of England.

Seeded three in Eastbourne, she will not get as much practice as she might have wished after being given a bye into the second round. But she won a first doubles match alongside Magui Serna to help her to get used to the faster surface after a long clay season.

In previous years she has gone home to warm up on grass before Wimbledon. "It will be interesting to see if it makes any difference. I think it will," she said in an interview for the tournament programme.

"I came pretty close at Wimbledon two years ago...but I really believe I could do better this time."

Even starting from the outside courts, few would bet against the tough cookie from Florida making the centre fairly quickly.

As she has said herself: "I am a fighter. Others give up but I don't I just dig deeper."

First Published: Jun 18, 2003 10:05 IST