Time froze before her moment of truth. Jennifer Capriati looked
to her left and briefly locked eyes with her father, Stefano.
She shuffled her feet a few times, hunched her back and awaited
Martina Hingis's serve. Holding match point in the women's final
of the Australian Open last Saturday, Capriati saw her life
flash before her. As her opponent tossed the ball, Capriati was
consumed by one thought: Is this really happening?
Yes, it was. A second later Capriati jumped on Hingis's 77-mph
meatball and rifled a backhand return up the line. As the ball
strafed past Hingis, an improbable transformation was complete.
By winning the first Grand Slam title of her career, the
24-year-old Capriati had gone from a cautionary tale to a fairy
tale. In a euphoric daze she leaped repeatedly, shook Hingis's
hand, dropped her racquet and wiped her tears as she made a
beeline to Stefano's perch in the players' box. What did they say
to each other, given the serpentine path they'd taken to this
destination? "Nothing," Stefano said, smiling. "We didn't have to
say a word."
Jennifer's present finally licked her past. Like Tom Hanks's
character in Cast Away--the movie she'd watched for inspiration
the night before the final--she returned from a lonely exile.
This, however, was no mere comeback story, no case of a
sympathetic protagonist making it back to where she had belonged.
On Saturday, Capriati surpassed anything she'd achieved on a
tennis court and fulfilled the expectations heaped on her when
she was a child. "Who would have ever thought I would have made
it here after so much has happened?" she later wondered out loud.
"Dreams do come true."
Capriati's saga has been chronicled and rechronicled so often
that it has an almost biblical ring to it. The Cliffs Notes
version: Anointed as the next Great American Tennis Star in the
early 1990s, Capriati played her first pro tournament at 13. At
14 she embarked on a "youngest-ever-to" tour de force, reaching
the semifinals of the French Open, cracking the Top 10 and
amassing millions in endorsements. By 17, sick of being
commodified--fed up with the insufferable sponsors' parties, the
corporate grip-and-grins, the photo shoots--and upset by the
divorce of her parents, she became a standard-bearer for tennis
burnout and teenage rebellion.
She was cited for shoplifting a cheap ring at a Tampa mall in
December 1993 and arrested for marijuana possession at a Coral
Gables, Fla., motel five months later. Having dropped off the
tour, she did a stint of court-approved drug rehab and lost
interest in tennis. Then, in fits and starts, she returned to the
circuit, but the player once destined for greatness went five
years without winning a match at a Grand Slam. "There was so much
against me, there were times when I thought, Maybe this isn't
worth it," Capriati said after Saturday's match. "But once I got
over the hump and enjoyed the game and stopped worrying about the
other stuff, I knew I'd break through eventually."
Capriati was on the verge of breaking through a year ago. She
arrived at the 2000 Australian Open in the best shape of her life
and reached the semifinals, where she lost to Lindsay Davenport,
the eventual champion. From there, though, a string of
distractions conspired to undo her progress. She parted company
with her coach, Harold Solomon, when he began to question her
work ethic, and Stefano took over. A foot injury hindered her
on-court movement and limited her training. She found romance
with Belgian pro Xavier Malisse, a talented and well-liked player
but a notorious slacker and junk-food junkie. Soon both
Capriati's physique and her resolve softened, and she finished a
so-so year ranked 14th. "I think she was a little bit
disappointed," says her mother, Denise, who followed Jennifer's
progress in Melbourne from her home in West Palm Beach, Fla. "If
Jennifer feels happy about herself physically, everything falls
into place. If she doesn't, she's not at her best."
During tennis's brief off-season Capriati whipped herself back
into shape and "took a break," as she puts it, from Malisse. She
worked out almost daily with her fitness trainer, Karen Burnett,
going through a regimen of Tae Bo, cycling and running. Having
arrived in Melbourne appreciably more toned than she'd been two
months before, Capriati didn't have to worry about rationing her
energy in heat that ranged from mild to molten. "It's one thing
to hit the ball well," says Capriati, whose victory on Saturday
raised her world ranking to No. 7. "It's another thing to know
you can keep it up as long as the match goes on."
Long one of the tour's heaviest hitters, Capriati belted the
fastest serves in the draw, save for those of the Williams
sisters, and unloaded ground strokes (crosscourt forehands in
particular) with murderous intent. But she tempered her power
with patience and variety, and played with a competitive fire
that she hasn't always shown. Trailing 5-1 in her fourth-round
match against Spain's Marta Marrero, Capriati gave herself a
lecture and rallied to win 7-5, 6-1. In the quarterfinals against
Monica Seles, Capriati was down a set and a break of serve before
she made like Emeril and--bam!--kicked it up a notch. She prevailed
5-7, 6-4, 6-3. Against a sluggish Davenport in the semis,
Capriati got the business end of a line call on a key point in
the second set. In the past it might have unnerved her. This
time, instead of arguing, she marched back to the baseline, took
a deep breath and spanked an ace down the middle. After winning
6-4, 6-3, Capriati was hardly giddy about reaching the final. "I
didn't get to this point just to get this point," she pointed
Saturday's match may have been Capriati's first Grand Slam final,
but she played as if it were her 10th, hitting boldly yet
judiciously and striking as many winners (20) as unforced errors.
The usually imaginative Hingis responded with strategically
vacant tennis, content to engage Capriati in baseline exchanges.
After jumping to a 4-0 lead, Capriati never relinquished her
grip, winning 6-4, 6-3.
Hingis was sorely disappointed with her failure to win the trophy
at a major for the eighth straight time, but her trip to the
Antipodes wasn't a total loss. She took great satisfaction in
beating her sworn rivals and recent Grand Slam tormentors, Serena
and Venus Williams, in successive matches. In the quarters Hingis
added to her scrapbook of epics with the House of Williams when
she recovered from a 1-4 third-set deficit to take out Serena
6-2, 3-6, 8-6. A day later she drubbed Venus, winner of the two
previous Slam tournaments, 6-1, 6-1. The most comprehensive loss
of Venus's career laid bare her spotty preparation, which
included no tournament play since mid-October. "They're always
saying, 'O.K., we went to school,'" said Hingis after her
victory. "Either you go to school or play tennis. You can't do
both. Tennis is a full-time commitment."
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
cliche," 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" from 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
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."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN REACHING HER POTENTIAL A fearless Capriati smacked down No. 2-ranked Davenport before whipping No. 1 Hingis.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Over and out Agassi's conditioning helped him outlast Rafter and run over Clement en route to successfully defending his title.
COLOR PHOTO: RON ANGLE JUMP-STARTED Capriati's ranking, endorsements and earnings will shoot up as a result of her victory.
"It might be a cliche," says Agassi, "but in this game there is
no substitute for practice and hard work." Scrimmage is
"Who would have ever thought I would have made it here after
so much has happened?" said Capriati. "Dreams do come true."