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Capriati bows out at French Open tennis tournament

Posted: Friday, June 04, 2004

PARIS Head down, Jennifer Capriati shuffled past her mother and coach near the locker room beneath center court.

''I just want to sit down,'' Capriati said, then sighed, burdened by an upset loss in the French Open semifinals Thursday.

A few minutes earlier, a few feet away, a beaming Anastasia Myskina, red flower in hand, was accepting congratulations for her 6-2, 6-2 victory over Capriati. Myskina got a kiss on the cheek from Olga Morozova, the last Russian woman to play for a Grand Slam title, 30 years ago and the coach of Saturday's other finalist, Elena Dementieva.

The No. 9-seeded Dementieva beat No. 14 Paola Suarez 6-0, 7-5 in a match filled with so many miscues (17 double-faults, 69 unforced errors total) it could be used for a ''How Not To Play Elite Tennis'' instructional video.

The previous 10 Grand Slam tournaments featured six all-Williams and three all-Belgian championship matches. But befitting the topsy-turvy nature of the past 10 days, there will be an all-Russian major final for the first time, assuring the country of its first female Slam champion.

Capriati had 36 unforced errors to only 11 winners, a big letdown after knocking off No. 2 Serena Williams in the quarterfinals Tuesday. That's the same day Myskina eliminated No. 4 Venus Williams, and Dementieva saddened the locals by beating No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo of France.

''I was just having a bad day,'' said Capriati, 3-9 in major semifinals dating to a loss to Monica Seles at 14 in the 1990 French Open. ''You're trying to figure out ways to change or what to do or what's going wrong. You have a million things going through your mind. When it's not there, it's not there.''

She trailed 0-3, 0-40 within 10 minutes and didn't recover, unable to find the range on the sixth-seeded Myskina's slower shots. The Russian showed no nerves in her first major semifinal, compiling points streaks in which she won 13 of 14, 10 of 11, and 12 of 14. Normally a top returner, Capriati never solved Myskina's soft serve, spraying balls in the net, wide or long.

''She's hitting serves what, like, 50 mph?'' said Capriati, a three-time major champion, including the 2001 French Open. ''Usually, I should be able to just take those shots and hit winners, but nothing was going in today.''

By the end of her 61-minute disaster, Capriati looked as if she had somewhere better to be, halfheartedly slapping at the ball. She cracked her racket on the court after one errant forehand and periodically looked up at the guest box with palms up, as if to say, ''What is going on here?''

In part, what was happening Thursday was the coming-of-age for Myskina, Dementieva and, in a way, all of Russian tennis. Ever since Anna Kournikova reached the Wimbledon semifinals at 16, then was followed onto the WTA Tour by a crop of young compatriots, there's been a sense of anticipation.

Ten Russians rank among the top 43 players in the world, five in the top 13. But other than Dementieva's Olympic silver medal and U.S. Open semifinal appearance in 2000, no real breakthrough came.

''You were writing, 'The Russians are coming' for how many years?'' said Morozova, who lost to Chris Evert in the 1974 French Open and Wimbledon finals.

''You asked, we did it.''

It helped that the Williams sisters have been hampered by injuries and lack of matches. And that defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne lost in the second round after missing six weeks with a viral infection. And that Belgium's other star, 2001 and 2003 French Open runner-up Kim Clijsters, is sidelined by left wrist tendinitis.

This was the first Slam in four years with none of that quartet in the semifinals, mirroring the unpredictable makeup of the men's final four: Three Argentines and serve-and-volleyer Tim Henman are in action Friday.

''These days,'' Capriati said, ''nothing is surprising, really.''

Oh, no?

Check out Dementieva's season record when she arrived in Paris: 10-9, with only one semifinal appearance. Or her recent Grand Slam history: three first-round losses in the preceding five events. Or Myskina's career French Open mark before last week: 1-4. Or her record against Capriati before Thursday: 1-5.

Now Myskina and Dementieva, both 22, have won six straight matches apiece on a surface that makes many a point a grind.

And they know each other well: They met when they were 6 or 7, at Moscow's Spartak club, taking lessons from the mother of 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin. Dementieva estimated they've played each other 30 times, from the junior ranks right up to tour level, where they are 4-4 head-to-head.

Myskina earned her first title as a pro at a 1997 minor league event in Batumi, Georgia, by beating Dementieva in the final. Both were ranked lower than 500th.

Look at them now.

''We do everything together, and we're pretty good friends,'' Myskina said, then paused and smiled. ''I hope.''



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