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Career contrast

Three-time champion Hingis vs. No. 12 seed Capriati

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Posted: Friday January 26, 2001 9:02 AM

  Jennifer Capriati Eleven years after Jennifer Capriati reached the semis in her first Grand Slam, she is heading to the finals of the Australian Open. AP

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Success came quickly for Jennifer Capriati -- up to a point.

At age 14, barely out of eighth grade, she reached the semifinals in the first Grand Slam tournament she played, the 1990 French Open.

It seemed only a matter of time before Capriati would take the next step. But time, in this case, meant waiting nearly 11 years.

Capriati will play in her first Grand Slam final when she meets Martina Hingis Saturday for the Australian Open title. What a contrast: Hingis, the three-time champion seeded No. 1, against Capriati, seeded 12th and touted by virtually no one to make the final.

"Jennifer has nothing to lose," said Andre Agassi, who will play in the men's final Sunday against Frenchmen Arnaud Clement. "She should work hard and swing for the fences."

It will be Capriati's biggest match since at least 1992, when she won the Olympic gold medal at Barcelona as a 16-year-old.

Her career collapsed the following year in a swirl of drugs and personal problems.

She left the women's tour for more than two years and has enjoyed only modest success since her return. There were six first-round Grand Slam losses, several tearful news conferences and skepticism as to whether she should even continue her career.

At 24 she's only four years older than Hingis and Venus Williams, yet in tennis she belongs to a different generation -- in her first professional tournament, she played doubles with Billie Jean King.

So it was easy to wonder if her time had passed.

"Of course those thoughts would go through my head when the going got really tough," she said. "I could have given up a long time ago. I guess it's not in my nature."

Capriati saw signs of progress at last year's Australian Open, when she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal since 1991 before losing to Lindsay Davenport. She avenged that defeat in Thursday's semifinal, beating the defending champion 6-3, 6-4.

That victory came after Capriati survived a three-setter in the first round, lost just 10 games total in the next three rounds, then rallied from a 7-5, 4-2 deficit to upset Monica Seles in the quarterfinals.

"I don't know what it is, but in this tournament, from the beginning, it's like all of a sudden this wave of confidence came over me," Capriati said. "I just really felt good about my game and about everything. I think it just has really shown."

Capriati acknowledged that her success is a reflection of her contentment off the court. It helps that she's no longer supermarket tabloid fodder.

She's well-liked by other women players and she enjoys good relationships with her divorced parents. Her father, Stefano, who taught her how to play, became her coach last year.

"Because he's my dad, it's easier to have that trust," she said. "Whatever he says I know is right."

She found a conditioning coach who makes workouts fun, and the result has been a trimmer, fitter, stronger player.

"Everything is thanks to her and not to anybody else," Stefano Capriati said after the win over Davenport. "She played well, but it's not her best. She can play better than that."

Hingis, bidding for her sixth Grand Slam title but her first in two years, has a 5-0 record against Capriati but expects to face an improved player Saturday. Both finalists live and train at the same resort in Tampa, Florida.

"Jennifer practiced a lot in December," Hingis said. "I saw her every day at the courts. The hard work has paid off for both of us -- just taking tennis as serious business."

When confronted yet again with the inevitable question about her troubled past, Capriati stiffened slightly, but the smile remained.

"It's been a story that has been played a few times over and over," she said. "Especially now, it's going to come up again, because it's the first time making it to a Grand Slam final."

She laughed. "But that's OK."

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