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Jenny Come Lately
L. Jon Wertheim
February 05, 2001
A mature, resilient Jennifer Capriati put her difficult past behind her and won her first major, while a focused Andre Agassi swept to his third Australian Open title
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February 05, 2001

Jenny Come Lately

A mature, resilient Jennifer Capriati put her difficult past behind her and won her first major, while a focused Andre Agassi swept to his third Australian Open title

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Perhaps no player knows this as well as Andre Agassi, who successfully defended his title on Sunday with a convincing defeat of Arnaud Clement 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. While the arc of Agassi's career hasn't been quite as dramatic as Capriati's, it's been marked by numerous undulations. With wavering focus, Agassi won three majors in his first 12 years as a pro. However, since rededicating himself to tennis at age 28, he has picked up four more Slam titles, and, three months shy of turning 31, is playing as well as ever. "I've had those years where tennis hasn't been the top priority," he said on Sunday, "but maybe in the long run it saved me a little bit."

Agassi went into a minor tailspin last summer when he learned that his mother, Elizabeth, and sister, Tammee, were battling breast cancer. When their health began to improve later in the year, he paid undivided attention to his career. On Christmas Day he worked out so intensely that he surrendered his lunch atop the Las Vegas hill where he trains. A few days later he was in South Florida with his girlfriend, Steffi Graf, and played dozens of practice sets with young pro Andy Roddick. "It might be a clich�," says Agassi, "but in this game there's no substitute for practice and hard work." Scrimmage is everything.

The work paid off handsomely last week. In the semifinals Agassi played Australian icon Pat Rafter, 28, who had announced plans to take an "indefinite leave" fron tennis at year's end. Rafter had the crowd in a frenzy from the start, and the fans went wild when his deft serve-and-volleying earned him a 2-1 lead in sets. Moments later, though, Rafter was "buggered," as he put it, by cramps, while Agassi, the oldest player in the Top 10, was still going strong. To the fans' dismay Agassi prevailed in five sets. "That's why Andre runs up hills," says his coach, Brad Gilbert.

Agassi has undergone more image reupholstering than Madonna, and his latest incarnation is as a thoughtful ambassador for tennis. When Yevgeny Kafelnikov—he of the $18 million in career winnings and the private jet—bitched in the tournament's first week that tennis players are underpaid, Agassi suggested Kafelnikov "buy some perspective." Unlike many of his male colleagues, Agassi speaks highly of the women's game, and he's made it known to younger players on tour that he's available for consultation. "Ultimately my goal is to be proud of how I competed and conducted myself," he says. "That's a lot clearer to me than it's ever been."

When Agassi, much like Capriati, ended his victorious run in Australia with a heat-seeking backhand, he reacted as though he had just won a second-round match in Indianapolis. He had come to win, and when he did, it was satisfying but not surprising. Afterward he shared a quiet moment with his Fraulein outside the players' lounge, accepted congratulations and soon thereafter grabbed his bag and left the complex. "I'm going to celebrate with Qantas," he said with a shrug. "I'm going home."

As for Capriati, before she even walked off the court the dark forces of the tennis world congregated in the bowels of Rod Laver Arena, angling for a piece of the action. Agents speculated about how much her first Grand Slam title would improve her endorsement portfolio and exhibition fees. Clothing-company reps sought out Stefano. A conga line of journalists waited to pester her with questions while photographers planned to pose her with the trophy on a nearby pier. Operatives even made plans to have a car waiting for Capriati when she got off the plane in Tampa so she could be whisked to the Super Bowl for a guest appearance.

It was precisely this environment that repulsed Capriati and set her on-the downward track that derailed her career nearly a decade ago. But now, as a self-possessed adult, she saw through it all. "This time I'm going to know when it gets to be too much or when I don't feel comfortable," she said. "This time, I'm the one in control."

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