Capriati bows out gracefully

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England -- Discussing the end of her Grand Slam winning streak, Jennifer Capriati shrugged, smiled and summed it up: ''Oh, well.''

The latest chapter in her career comeback was a setback in the Wimbledon semifinals, but also a reflection of lessons learned. Emotional meltdowns in response to losing are now part of her past.

Justine Henin, a 19-year-old dynamo from Belgium, rallied Thursday to beat Capriati 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. With the upset, Henin earned a berth in her first Grand Slam final against defending champion Venus Williams, who won a sloppy slugfest against Lindsay Davenport, 6-2, 6-7 (1), 6-1.

Capriati's elimination was a surprise, especially given her early lead over Henin and her 19-match winning streak in major tournaments. The loss ended her bid for a Grand Slam sweep this year but underscored her newfound maturity.

''It's really not a big deal to lose a tennis match,'' said the 25-year-old Capriati, her voice firm as a forehand winner. ''There are a lot worse things that could happen.

''Definitely, that's just part of my growing up, my maturity, what I've come to realize. You know, I've had a lot more losses in different ways than this tennis match.''

While learning to cope with defeat, Capriati endured many false starts in her comeback from drug and personal problems as a teen-ager, and she ended more than one tournament with a teary news conference.

Then she won the Australian Open in January and the French Open last month. Suddenly she was the dominant player in tennis and halfway to a sweep of the year's four major events, something achieved by only five players.

''Everyone was making a big deal out of the Grand Slam but me,'' she said with a grin. ''I'm pretty happy with the way the year has gone so far. I mean, it's hard to win one Grand Slam.

''It's not a disappointment at all. It would have been nice, but ... oh well.''

Capriati's departure leaves rejuvenated three-time Wimbledon runner-up Goran Ivanisevic as the sentimental favorite. But Britons will be rooting against him in the men's semifinals Friday, when Ivanisevic plays Englishman Tim Henman. The other matchup pits 1992 champion Andre Agassi against Patrick Rafter for the third year in a row.

Few figured Capriati's streak would be ended by the eighth-seeded Henin, who weighs just 126 pounds but hits like a heavyweight. Playing on Centre Court for the first time, the slender youngster beat Capriati at her own game, controlling rallies from the baseline with a relentless barrage of deep, powerful groundstrokes.

When Henin shook off some early jitters and a blister on her right foot, the match turned and she had Capriati literally on the run. In the third set, Henin won 12 of the first 13 points.

''She was just on her game, hitting everything well, not making any mistakes,'' Capriati said. ''There was not much that I could do.''

Henin has a playing style reminiscent of her hero, seven-time Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf, but does the most damage with her one-handed backhand, a shot both elegant and ferocious. She unleashes it like someone swatting a fly with a newspaper, and the results are just as lethal.

''She has the greatest backhand in the game right now, man or woman,'' three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe said.

The match began in balmy sunshine, but conditions grew progressively more gloomy, especially for Capriati. Rain came with Henin leading 4-1 in the final set, forcing a 22-minute interruption.

Henin admitted that nerves got the best of her when she lost the French Open semifinal to countrywoman Kim Clijsters last month. But after the rain delay, Henin calmly closed out the biggest victory of her young career.

When Capriati sent a forehand wide on match point, Henin tossed her racket skyward in tribute to her late mother, who died of cancer seven years ago.

''You can't imagine what it means for me to be in the final of a Grand Slam,'' she said. ''That's not a dream -- that's something I couldn't imagine.''

On Saturday, the 5-foot-6 Henin again will be the underdog, this time to the 6-foot-1 Williams. Henin won their only previous meeting in May, but that was on clay, and the grass-loving Williams carries a 13-match Wimbledon winning streak into the final.

''Once you win here, it's pretty addictive,'' Williams said.

In the second set against Davenport, Williams blew a 4-1 lead, failed to convert a match point at 5-4 and played a nervous tiebreaker, double-faulting twice. Then Williams took charge again, winning 12 of the first 15 points in the final set and breaking Davenport three times in a row.

Consistently hitting serves around 120 mph, Williams slammed nine aces and held on 13 of her 14 service games.

''It was hard to find any rhythm on her serve, serving that hard,'' Davenport said. ''Women's tennis is just not used to it coming that hard.''

That's Henin's problem now. For Capriati, the Grand Slam streak is over, but the comeback will continue.

''It has been a great year,'' said Stefano Capriati, her father and coach. ''Why be disappointed? What can you do? You're always disappointed when you're not in the final at Wimbledon, but it's not to get a headache from it.''

In other words: Oh, well.



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