Aplate from Wimbledon. A cup from the U.S. Open. Three cups from the Australian Open. Martina Hingis's quintet of Grand Slam singles trophies—all acquired in a two-year window—have been accumulating dust for three years. Their owner is an exquisite player, but lately she has had no response to the power of bigger, stronger opponents. Her confidence, once plated in armor, has been fissuring. The conventional wisdom has been that at the wizened age of 21, Hingis was finished as a Grand Slam threat.
Yet last Saturday in Melbourne, Hingis looked ready to add another piece of silver to her collection. In the final of the Australian Open she had a 6-4, 4-0 lead over a sluggish Jennifer Capriati. Moments later Hingis held a match point. The pooh-bahs at courtside straightened their ties for the trophy presentation ceremony, and a television camera was wheeled onto the court, ready to capture Hingis's rapture.
Not so fast. Capriati saw the camera out of the corner of her eye and demanded that it be pushed back into a courtside tunnel. Then she bludgeoned a backhand winner to stay in the match. Over the next 25 minutes Capriati faced three more match points. Each time she swung away with devil-may-care abandon, while Hingis's shots, laced with hesitation, fluttered passively. "Even though the score showed I was far behind," Capriati recalled, "I felt I was right there in the match."
In conditions resembling a kiln—on-court temperatures reached nearly 120º—Capriati won the second set in a tiebreaker. During a 10-minute heat timeout between sets, both players lay in the same air-conditioned training room, too exhausted to speak, draped with ice packs and drinking replenishing fluids. In the third set Hingis was physically spent and psychologically wrecked by her staggering inability to close out the match. "My head was all over the place," she conceded. Capriati, meanwhile, said she had "something left in reserve," the payoff for all those wind sprints and Tae Bo sessions she has endured in the past year and the recently added kick-boxing. After coasting to a 5-2 lead, Capriati punctuated one of the most stunning comebacks in a Grand Slam final by belting a forehand service return winner for a 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 victory.
A year after Capriati won the first major of her tortuous career and established herself as a Comeback Kid for all time, her unlikely narrative continues. Too fatigued to replicate her victory dance of a year ago, she simply raised her arms in triumph, betraying more relief than joy. However, as in 2001, soon after leaving the court she phoned her brother, Steven, a student at Arizona. Steven offered perhaps the highest praise a brother can give a sister. "He just said I have more of a certain something than he does," Jennifer recalled, laughing.
Capriati's astounding mettle—or, to be less charitable, Hingis's astounding choke—salvaged an otherwise grim event. Unofficially sponsored by Bengay and Ace bandages, the 2002 Australian Open should have come with a surgeon general's warning. Before the first point was played, Andre Agassi (right wrist injury), Serena Williams (right ankle sprain) and Lindsay Davenport (knee surgery) were out of the draw. Beset by tendinitis in her left knee, Venus Williams was nearly immobile in the early rounds and fell to Monica Seles in the quarterfinals. Recovering from chicken pox, top men's seed Lleyton Hewitt got bounced in Round 1. Same for the slumping second seed, Gustavo Kuerten, hampered by back and hip pain.
The rash of injuries was particularly troubling given that in 2001 both tours had reconfigured their schedules to extend the off-season. The diagnoses varied. Organizers considered the injury bug a fluke, "a one-off," as tournament director Paul McNamee put it. Some implicated the rubberized Rebound Ace surface, which gets sticky in heat. (When American Andy Roddick reached for a ball during his second-round match, his shoe stuck to the court like an insect on flypaper, and he turned his right ankle, forcing him to retire.) Others cited the schedule change. "Maybe it wasn't a long enough break," suggested Capriati. "Or maybe it was too long, and everybody got out of shape."
One player unaffected by it all was Thomas Johansson of Sweden, the surprise men's champion. Johansson, 26, played 28 sets and was on court for nearly 18 hours, yet he hardly looked the worse for it. He credited his stamina to an off-season spent playing squash. "It's great for your movement," he said. He also got a boost from an army of Swedish fans who exhorted him with inspiring chants like, "Jobba Thomas, jobba på, saft o bullar får du då." Rough translation: "Keep working, Thomas. Then you will get juice and sticky buns."
Johansson, the 16th seed, toils north of journeyman status, but not by much. Before last weekend he'd won six titles in nine years on tour and had never been past the quarterfinals of a major. Nor is he among the game's more notable personalities. "I'm not that interesting," he said. His tennis, though, was arresting, a blend of powerful serving, efficient ball striking and nifty shot making. In the final he played the match of his life to beat No. 9 seed Marat Safin 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6.
Capriati, by contrast, never summoned her best tennis, which made her title all the more impressive. Nursing a hip injury, she advanced by dint of competitive resolve. "Getting into those kinds of battles, I live for that," she said after needing a second-set tiebreaker to beat Italy's Rita Grande in the fourth round. "That's what I love about tennis."