Capriati keeps Aussie crown

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Jennifer Capriati refused to wilt, pulling off her greatest comeback on the court where she rejuvenated her career.

Capriati fought off four match points in the second set and beat Martina Hingis 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 Saturday to win her second consecutive Australian Open title.

''I really don't know how I won today,'' Capriati said. ''I was struggling on the court today.''

No woman had ever saved more match points and won a Grand Slam final. The WTA, organizers of the women's tennis tour, said the previous record was set in 1898, when Blanche Bingley Hillyard saved three match points against Lena Rice before winning at Wimbledon.

''I kept fighting on those match points I was down,'' Capriati said. ''I went for it. I don't know why I didn't play like that every point.''

Playing in 95-degree heat, the top-seeded Capriati fell behind 0-4 in the second set and cursed at the chair umpire. But Capriati then staved off three match points -- at 3-5 and 5-6 -- to force a tiebreaker.

She survived one more at 6-7 in the tiebreaker and finally took the set when Hingis hit a backhand wide. Hingis threw her racket after letting Capriati back into the match.

Capriati breezed in the final set. When it was over, she dropped her racket, ran over to touch hands with her father, Stefano, blew kisses, and walked back on court, shaking her head in apparent disbelief.

''I couldn't believe finally that I won,'' she said. ''Maybe I thought the third set would be a lot more difficult. I was cruising -- it was because Martina didn't feel well. She was struggling.

''I don't know what's better -- the first (title) or to come back from match point and win this,'' she said.

Capriati's victory in Melbourne last year capped a comeback from personal problems that turned a teen-age prodigy into a tennis washout.

This 2-hour, 10-minute win contrasted with last year's final, when Capriati beat Hingis 6-4, 6-3.

This time, Hingis took big leads in the first two sets before weakening in the third. It was her third consecutive loss in an Australian Open final, and her fifth in a major final since her last Grand Slam event triumph, at the 1999 Australian Open.

At the end, Hingis sat with her head bowed.

''Jennifer was just too good for me,'' she said at the trophy ceremony.

''I think I exceeded my expectations. I don't know whether to be happy or cry about it,'' she said. ''Hopefully we'll have many more finals like this. I hope to have revenge sometime soon.''

Capriati at one point took refuge in a tunnel entry and Hingis put an ice pack on her neck between points in the second-set tiebreaker. The players were allowed a 10-minute break after the second set.

During the break, the players lay in the training room covered with ice packs -- ''it was a perfect sight,'' Hingis said.

She said she was thinking, ''There is no way I've got to go out there again, but I still have to do it. It was just too much for me this time.''

Capriati said she ''didn't have the energy to change clothes.''

Capriati came back from 1-5 to 4-5 in the first set but then lost her serve.

In the second, she lost her serve for 0-2 in the second game, in which she screeched a protest over a line call and demanded that the referee be called.

''I was really frustrated,'' she said, but the linesman who upset her was soon changed anyway in a regular rotation.

From 0-4, she recovered to 3-4 by breaking Hingis twice, was broken herself for 3-5, and then hit a backhand winner to save a match point. She broke for 4-5 on a double fault and forehand error by Hingis, and held for 5-5.

Serving at 5-6, she yielded another match point with a double fault but survived it and one more when Hingis hit forehands long. Finally she held for 6-all with a forehand down the line.

Hingis gained one more match point in the tiebreaker with a backhand volley, but missed a backhand for 7-all.

Capriati then hit a winning forehand down the line, took the set when Hingis hit a backhand wide, and vigorously shook her fist several times.

The two traded early service breaks in the final set before Capriati won the last five games by pressing Hingis into errors.

She finished it with a spectacular lunging forehand crosscourt serve return.

Capriati earned $520,000 for her third title in her last five Grand Slam tournaments. She won the Australian and French opens last year and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Capriati made it to the French Open semifinals as a 14-year-old in 1990 and beat Steffi Graf for the Olympic gold medal in 1992. But at 17, she dropped off the tour for 2 1/2 years following the 1993 U.S. Open.

Her troubles as a teen-ager made international headlines, and it wasn't until she reached the Australian Open semifinals in 2000 that her comeback looked genuine.

Hingis became the youngest women's Grand Slam event champion of the 20th century when she won the Australian Open in 1997 at age 16.

But the rise of power players like Lindsay Davenport and sisters Venus and Serena Williams, and the comeback by Capriati, blocked her from winning major titles.

Despite that, she managed to keep the No. 1 ranking for a total of 209 weeks over various stretches. She had been at the top for 73 weeks when an ankle injury required surgery last October.

Davenport briefly took the top position, and then Capriati captured it this month as Davenport dropped off the tour for knee surgery.

In Saturday's other final, Mark Knowles of the Bahamas and Canadian Daniel Nestor won the men's doubles crown with a 7-6 (4), 6-3 win over French pair Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro.

In the men's singles final Sunday, Marat Safin will play on his 22nd birthday against Thomas Johansson of Sweden.

On the men's side, Marat Safin will play on his 22nd birthday Sunday for a second Grand Slam title, against Thomas Johansson.

Safin credits a cloudburst for helping him get that far.

''I needed that break, and God gave it to me,'' said Safin, who was trailing Tommy Haas 2-1 in sets Friday when the rain came, giving him a 50-minute rest while the stadium roof was closed.

After a massage and some coaching in the locker room, Safin came back for a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-0, 6-2 semifinal victory. Haas won only 11 points in the fourth set after the rain.

Without the rain, ''I had no chance to win,'' said the ninth-seeded Safin. ''I was lucky, believe me.''



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