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Vive L'Amour

At the love-filled French Open, a determined Jennifer Capriati and a dominant Gustavo Kuerten stole the fans' hearts

By S.L. Price

Issue date: June 18, 2001

Sports Illustrated Flashback It was all going to be so easy. That's what everyone thought back when Jennifer Capriati was young and fresh. Championships seemed inevitable for the Fort Lauderdale schoolgirl, a Chris Evert wannabe who learned the game from Evert's dad, Jimmy, and pounded the hardest ground strokes anyone had seen. She collected wins like Barbie dolls, popping her gum and grinning. In 1990, at age 14, Capriati became the youngest girl ever to be ranked in the top 10, and she cruised into the French Open semifinals, becoming the youngest to advance so far at a Grand Slam tournament. She was going to be the next big American thing. Everyone said so.

Endorsements, magazine covers: All the treasures of the modern age were laid at Capriati's feet. No one bothered to ask if any of it was good for her. For what no one knew about Capriati then -- what no one really would know until 4:58 p.m., Paris time, last Saturday -- was that at her core, she needs a fight. Capriati responds best to adversity, not ease. So on Saturday, at the tennis-old age of 25, Capriati, the onetime troubled teen who in the last two years has clawed her way back to the top, again buried herself in a hole from which to clamber out. After a first set in which she demonstrated little more than frayed nerves, the heavily favored and fourth-ranked Capriati righted herself, engaged No. 12 seed Kim Clijsters in a mesmerizing final set and, with a 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 victory in the French Open final, fulfilled the promise she had shown on this same court more than a decade ago.

Then, after becoming the first American woman since Evert in 1986 to win in Paris, Capriati walked up to the podium to find Evert herself waiting to present the trophy. "I never thought I'd be standing here 11 years later, after playing my first time here when I was 14 years old," Capriati told the crowd. "Really, I'm just waiting to wake up from this dream."

Don't pinch her yet. After answering her own doubts about her fortitude with a three-set quarterfinal win over Serena Williams and then rolling over No. 1 Martina Hingis in the semifinals, Capriati emerged as the most focused force in the women's game. Better yet, with her title runs at Roland Garros and, before that, at the Australian Open -- the first Aussie-French double since Monica Seles achieved it in 1992 -- Capriati has become a threat to complete the game's first Grand Slam since Steffi Graf's in 1988. Of the four Slam surfaces, the slow red clay of Roland Garros presented the stiffest challenge to Capriati's high-octane game. She'll enter the speedy precincts of Wimbledon as the favorite, and the hard courts at the U.S. Open are her best surface. "I think she'll win one [more] Grand Slam [event] for sure," Clijsters said.

That this is the buzz hovering about Capriati is astounding. Back in her darkest days, in 1994, she declared herself to be self-loathing and suicidal. The difference between Capriati then and now is the difference between Girl, Interrupted and Sleeping Beauty. On her first Wednesday at Roland Garros this year, Capriati smiled wistfully and announced a Disneyfied desire "to find my Prince Charming."

That took the tour's most unpredictable Grand Slam event in a new direction. Love was in the air. By the time the fortnight had ended, TV screens were saturated with shots of Jennifer's divorced parents, Denise and Stefano, sitting side by side and hugging after her wins. Men's champion Gustavo Kuerten, who on Sunday won his third French Open, with a 6-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-0 victory over Alex Corretja, conjured up the tournament's most apt image. After surviving a match point to win a fourth-round marathon against qualifier Michael Russell, he used his racket to carve a heart -- a valentine to the French fans --in the clay of Court Phillippe Chatrier, then kneeled and blew two kisses. Following the final he took it one step further, carving another heart and stretching out inside it.

Kuerten joins greats Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, the only other men to have won at least three French titles in the Open era. Kuerten arrived in Paris with a 24-3 record on clay in 2001, and his romps over former champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinals and the fast-rising Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semis gave pause only because of their mastery. But it was Capriati's victory, and her run over the last two years, that told a tale of things larger than tennis. "What she did is an example for everybody," Stefano said. "All families have [problems], but with love you can always come back."

Well, with love, hard work and Capriati's embrace of a challenge. She battled a bad reputation, being cited for shoplifting in 1993 and arrested for marijuana possession in '94, and she entered drug rehab soon afterward. She lost lucrative endorsement deals and, in 1995, suffered through her parents' divorce. Over the last year Capriati has seen her mother stricken with thyroid cancer, skin cancer and recurring hip ailments that forced Denise to skip the Australian Open and undergo hip-replacement surgery. During the recovery Jennifer was always there, holding up Denise in the shower, helping her dress, keeping her spirits high. "I couldn't do the things I wanted to do," says Denise, "and at times you go on a pity party and say, 'I don't have any more energy.' Jennifer would hear none of it. 'Mom,' she would say, 'we've fought bigger battles than this.'"

By the time she hit Paris, Jennifer had the drill down. Accompanied by her 21-year-old brother, Steven, as well as Denise and Stefano, Jennifer did no sightseeing and kept telling her mother, "Only the strong survive." On the morning of the final Jennifer turned to Steven and said, "Time to do what we came here to do."

After a dismal first set against Clijsters, Capriati willed herself back into the match, snapping to herself, "Start over again!" Every time things seemed to be leaning her way, however, Capriati squandered the opportunity. Three times in the third set she served for the match, but Clijsters, 18 and playing in her first Grand Slam final, pressed with crushing forehands and indefatigable retrieving. Four times in the final set Clijsters came within two points of the match, and it was then that Capriati revealed her mettle. "I was fighting till the end," she said.

The first time, serving at 5-6, 30-all, Capriati outmuscled Clijsters in a 21-stroke rally. Twice more with her back to the wall, Capriati hit heavy ground strokes that forced Clijsters into errors, and the fourth time, at 7-8, deuce, Capriati shook off two net cords and fired a service winner. Six games later, on Capriati's second match point, as Clijsters sagged, she whipped the ball past the Belgian teenager with a forehand. Capriati then hopped three times and clenched her hands over her head as if she were the heavyweight champ.

Who could argue that she wasn't? Even Hingis conceded last week, after losing to Capriati for the third straight time, that she had been supplanted. "Jennifer's hot, and she sees the opportunity this year with everyone's being injured," Hingis said. "She's on top of the game."

That Hingis, of all people, finds herself overwhelmed by Capriati's determination is stunning. It was the 14-year-old Hingis who arrived in 1995 as the anti-Capriati, a precociously talented player who handled the game, the pressure and the minefield of being coached by a parent (her mother, Melanie Molitor) with little angst. She won five Grand Slam singles titles from 1997 to '99. However, just as Capriati has come into her own, Hingis has hit a wall. She's finding adulthood far harder to negotiate than adolescence.

Hingis, who hasn't won a Grand Slam event in more than two years, hadn't prepared herself to win in Paris. The week before the tournament, while Capriati was practicing on clay in Monte Carlo and leaving Steven -- a member of the tennis team at Arizona -- gasping after 20 minutes of her fiery workouts, Hingis was practicing on the cushioned hard-court surface at her home in Trubbach, Switzerland. Why? "I don't have a clay court in front of my house," she explained lamely.

The heart of her game has been nothing if not unstable. Hingis declared independence from her mother in late March, then reversed course after a few weeks and asked Molitor back as her coach in Paris. Hingis got a big break when, down 1-4 in the first set of the semifinal, Capriati felt a twinge in her right knee and took treatment from the tour trainer. With Capriati momentarily slowed, Hingis evened things at 4-4 but failed to convert two break points and lost all spirit. Capriati easily broke Hingis to win the first set and then ground her into powder.

None of the top players fears Hingis now. After the match her mother sat at a rain-soaked table outside the players' lounge, smiling vaguely. "Martina cannot play," Molitor said. "Jennifer did more for her tennis in the last few weeks than Martina and played very good. Martina didn't."

For Capriati, though, tennis is one thing, stardom another. She never had the crossover dreams of Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters. "She'd be perfectly content with going home after this and watching TV in her bedroom or on the couch or playing with her dogs, Happy and Aries," says Steven. "That'd make her as happy as going on a million-dollar shopping spree in Paris."

Capriati still regards the media as the monster that once devoured her and her family. The night before the French final she worried that another Grand Slam title would bring a level of hype she hadn't imagined. "It was pretty quiet after [the Australian Open]," she said following her win on Saturday. "After this one it might get pretty crazy. But I think I've got a good head on my shoulders."

Capriati came to Paris more confident than ever. Rather than mumble and stare at the tablecloth during her press conferences, as had been her habit, she made eye contact with reporters and, most tellingly, tossed away most of the "you knows" that had propped up her conversation like so many crutches. She emphasized that she is finally at peace, that she likes the person she sees in the mirror. For the first time, she realizes that fame can be a positive force. Before her quarterfinal showdown against Serena Williams, Capriati strode to the net and held up a sign that read GET WELL SOON, CORINA, for Corina Morariu, a doubles specialist who is battling leukemia. After the final Capriati dedicated her championship to Morariu, gave the crowd a composed speech and congratulated her opponent. She seemed perfectly comfortable. "It's just my happiness talking," she said.

This is the Capriati everyone has waited for since she first came to Paris as a pro 11 years ago. She's an adult now, bruised and wary, but at times you can still see a hint of the 14-year-old who captivated America. When the crowd at Court Phillippe Chatrier did the wave before she served the last time for the championship, Capriati stared in openmouthed wonder at the sight of so many grown-ups acting like kids. Her mother, too, sometimes can see the five-year-old who had no idea she'd won her first match and grinned so widely at the news. "I love that smile," Denise said. "She can just light up a room when she smiles."

She did it again on Saturday. After she clenched her hands over her head as the cheers rained down, that smile swept over Capriati's face, and she lit up the biggest room in Paris. It came to her so easily that you'd swear it took no work at all.

This is the Capriati everyone has waited for since she first came to Paris as a pro 11 years ago.

Kuerten joins Borg, Lendl and Wilander, the only other men to have won at least three French titles in the Open era.

Issue date: June 18, 2001


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