The first time, serving at 5-6, 30-all, Capriati out-muscled 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."