Capriati rallies past Clijsters for title in Paris
Updated: Sunday June 10, 2001 4:01 AM
PARIS (AP) -- Jennifer Capriati jogged to the corner of the stadium where her family stood cheering, climbed onto a ledge and leaned over the railing to give her brother and father an emotional hug.
It's amazing she still had the strength, almost as amazing as her being the new French Open champion.
Weariness gave way to jubilation when Capriati finally closed out the grueling, elusive victory Saturday, beating tenacious Belgian teenager Kim Clijsters 1-6, 6-4, 12-10.
"I'm just waiting to wake up from this dream," Capriati told the crowd during the trophy ceremony. "It doesn't seem like reality right now."
Nervous and cranky in the unfamiliar role of heavy favorite, Capriati started poorly and then staged a comeback -- something she knows plenty about. At 25, the former teenage prodigy has resurrected a career derailed by drugs and personal problems to become the dominant player in women's tennis.
Capriati won her first major title in January at the Australian Open, almost 11 years after she made history as a 14-year-old semifinalist in Paris. She now is halfway to a Grand Slam sweep only three women have accomplished, most recently Steffi Graf in 1988.
"She's rounding second," said Kevin O'Connor, an executive at Saddlebrook Resort in Florida, where Capriati has lived and trained since she was 11. "She's at a time in her career where she's really enjoying it. She doesn't feel the pressure or expectations she felt in the past. That's maturity."
The last woman to win the year's first two Grand Slam tournaments was Monica Seles in 1992. Capriati will now set her sights on Wimbledon, which begins June 25.
"Who knows what can happen?" she said. "I feel comfortable on the grass."
Anything seems possible now for Capriati, who dropped to 267th in the world in 1998 but is 14-0 in the majors this year. The streak includes a pair of victories over top-ranked Martina Hingis and one each over Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams and Seles.
But the latest win was the toughest of all. Clijsters, who turned 18 Friday, proved a remarkably poised opponent even as the tense final set unfolded. In terms of games, it was the longest third set of any French Open women's final, and the longest third set in any Grand Slam women's final since the 1948 U.S. Open.
Four times, the 12th-seeded Clijsters was within two points of the championship. Each time, the fourth-seeded Capriati rose to the occasion.
"She's playing with so much confidence at the moment, she doesn't feel any pressure," said Clijsters, who settled for the consolation of being the first Belgian to reach a Grand Slam final.
Both players battled fatigue in the latter stages of the 2-hour, 21-minute marathon. With Clijsters serving at 10-10, Capriati won a long rally by skipping a backhand off the baseline, then leaned on her racket in exhaustion. But she summoned the energy to win that game by closing out a 20-shot exchange with an overhead slam.
"I'd rather have a match like that than an easy one," she said. "I love it."
Serving for the title, Capriati needed six more points to finish it off. On the second match point, she smacked a forehand winner, then hopped up and down in glee. She gave Clijsters a warm hug at the net, clasped her hands over her head and trotted over to her family.
The crowd's ovation rose as she embraced Steven, her brother and practice partner, then Stefano, her father and coach.
"When I looked at my family, and how happy they were and crying, it was really amazing," she said.
Capriati's tumultuous past has given her a unique perspective, and during the trophy ceremony she dedicated the victory to Corina Morariu, a fellow American touring pro recently diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.
"I started thinking about it as I got close to being in the finals here," Capriati said. "I just wanted to show that my heart is with her."
Capriati accepted the championship trophy from Olympic 100-meter champion Maurice Greene and seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert, whose father, Jimmy, started giving Capriati lessons when she was 5 years old.
Capriati overcame eight double faults and a whopping 79 unforced errors, with 39 coming in the opening set. She admitted being nervous at the start, when her footwork was sluggish and she became annoyed by chanting Belgian fans and wind noise from the chair umpire's microphone. She complained about both, drawing a few jeers from the otherwise supportive crowd.
"Some things were getting to me," Capriati said. "It was probably just nerves -- and she was playing so well."
Clijsters embraced the biggest moment of her young career from the start. Her supporters included boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt, a top player himself, and Crown Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde of Belgium.
Clijsters had the muscle to put her opponent on the defensive and the speed and stamina to keep rallies going. With the match slipping away, Capriati stayed alive thanks to her serve -- not usually her best weapon. After losing seven consecutive games, she hit two service winners to hold for 1-1, then hit two more for a 4-2 lead in the second set.
"Maybe I wasn't playing my best tennis, but at the right times I picked it up," Capriati said. "I was fighting until the end for my life out there. I just wanted to win so bad."
Capriati held twice more to close out the second set, but more than half of the match was yet to be played. Chants of "Jenn-i-fer! Jenn-i-fer!" broke out, answered by chants of "Clij-sters! Clij-sters!" from flag-waving Belgians.
Using her racket like a sand wedge, Clijsters chipped a backhand drop shot for 3-2 lead, then slammed a 105-mph ace to make it 5-4. Capriati finally began to find the range on her forehand, and won a point-blank exchange at the net with an acrobatic volley.
At 11-10, as Capriati walked to the baseline to serve for the match, the crowd broke into its first wave of the day, and Stefano Capriati joined in. His daughter soaked up the moment, then showed the poise of a champion, missing only two of six serves and successfully charging the net twice.
"I was having a heart attack," Steven Capriati said. "I told my dad at 5-all, `I can't watch anymore.' It was gut-wrenching."