Refocused Capriati is on a roll
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Walk around the catacombs of Rod Laver Arena and you'll see framed posters of past champions covering the walls. One of the most arresting images is that of an innocent teenager, her hair pulled tight, smiling and hugging a trophy and a stuffed kangaroo.
Nine years -- almost to the day -- after the photo was taken, Monica Seles was back on center stage at Rod Laver Arena. This time there would be no triumph and no expansive grin. Tuesday's quarterfinal throwdown with Jennifer Capriati followed an all-too-familiar script. Seles started the match strong, won the first set, and then collapsed like a bad soufflé. Up a set and 4-2 in the second -- the same score of the deficit she faced in her previous match, against Justine Henin -- Seles' gas gauge hit E. She went nearly 40 minutes without winning a game and, for the first time in six Grand Slam meetings, fell to Capriati, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.
It is, of course, difficult to watch a nine-time Grand Slam champion struggle to try and regain a shadow of her former self. But this match between former prodigies -- both with rich histories, recounted ad nauseum -- was less about Seles' struggle than Capriati's triumph. It was a year ago that a tan, muscled Capriati made it to the semifinals here, playing her best ball since Bush Administration I. Her year unraveled from there, as she inexplicably split with her coach, Harold Solomon, and replaced him with her father; endured a string of injuries; took on a serious boyfriend; and allowed her fitness and focus to slip. By the time she closed out a disappointing year with an ugly loss to Anna Kournikova at the Chase Championships, she had regressed decidedly, playing strategically vacant tennis and lacking conditioning.
Before the distance between herself and the top guns widened further, Capriati got herself back in shape. In December, when other players go on vacation or give their DVD machines a workout, Capriati headed to the gym. Under the eye of her trainer, Karen Burnett, Capriati ran, cycled, lifted weights and even tried Tae Bo. She also "took a break" from her boyfriend, Xavier Malisse, a wonderfully talented tennis player but a notorious junk-food junkie. A decade into her career, Capriati has realized one of the realities of the women's game: "It's no problem hitting the ball," she says. "It's how many times you can run around and hit it." As is so often the case among players, as Capriati's fitness improved, so did her confidence. Before Melbourne, she asserted with uncharacteristic boldness that her strokes were as good as any other player's on tour.
Both her improved conditioning and her swagger were on display Tuesday. Even in the early going, Capriati saved seven set points before dropping the opening set. Down 2-4 in the second, she played her best tennis of the match, calmly stroking winners and sadistically running Seles from corner to corner. While Seles grew visibly fatigued, Capriati was barely sucking wind. Without having to worry about rationing energy, she "hit out" and kept Seles on the go. A player never known for her consistency, Capriati finished with one fewer error and 18 more winners than Seles. "That's as well as I've seen Jennifer play," said Solomon, on hand filling in as Seles' coach. "Give her credit."
Seles, as is her nature, did just that. Following a doubles win with Martina Hingis -- which made her singles loss go down a little bit easier -- Seles was plenty gracious. "Jennifer lifted her game and I think I went the other way," Seles said. "She fought a lot harder and, I think, wanted to win a lot more than I did today." It's no great secret that for Seles to improve her showing in Grand Slams -- she hasn't advanced beyond the quarterfinals in three years -- it's imperative that she whip herself into better shape. As perhaps the most down-to-earth player on the circuit, she knows this as well as anyone. And if she needs inspiration that it can be done, she needed only to have looked across the net Tuesday.
An apocryphal story making the rounds here Tuesday: A dozen or so players and coaches were waiting at the transportation center for courtesy cars to shuttle them back to their hotels Monday. When Pat Rafter's car pulled up, Kournikova appeared out of the blue, cut in line, and tried to get into the back seat. Before she sat down, Rafter pulled her out, pointed to the line and told her wait her turn like everyone else. ... Fourth seed Magnus Norman may have bit the dust Monday night against Sebastien Grosjean, but he earned high marks for his sportsmanship. Up match point in the fourth set, Grosjean served what he and Norman both assumed was an ace. As Grosjean celebrated and the two opponents walked to the net to shake hands, the umpire came down from the chair and explained that the serve was, in fact, a let. Before Grosjean could protest, Norman conceded the match. After explaining that his mother told him always to play fair, Norman offered another endearing explanation for his show of class: On the off chance he had come back to win the match, he would have felt the victory tainted. "When I go home, I want to feel good about myself," Norman said. ... Giovanni Lapentti, the younger brother of Nicolas and a player whom many think is the better pro prospect, tried to enter Crown Casino last night. He was told by the guard, "We don't do babysitting here." Lapentti plans to return Wednesday when he turns 18.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will file daily reports through the end of the Australian Open. Click here to send a question to his Mailbag.