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Capriati's comeback nets her French Open title
Two legs to stand on. What once was a modest objective in the personal comeback program of Jennifer Capriati today has the ring of momentous tennis achievement.
Two legs of the 2001 Grand Slam, the Australian Open in January and the French Open Saturday, now belong to Capriati after her 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 victory over Belgium's Kim Clijsters in the women's championship final at Roland Garros.
It is a tennis accomplishment no less remarkable than Capriati's rehabilitation of her young, oft-troubled life. Only four other women -- Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles -- have won the Australian and French Opens during the same calendar year. Not Martina Navratilova, not Billie Jean King, not even Capriati's idol, Chris Evert, who was at Center Court to hand Capriati the Suzanne Lenglen Cup.
You can say Capriati's 12-step program is now complete.
"I keep waiting for someone to wake me up from this dream," she said.
The epic victory unleashed a gamut of emotions after Capriati uncorked a rapier-like forehand on her second match point. Her father and coach Stefano cried. So did Clijsters' boyfriend, tennis star Lleyton Hewitt.
Men were driven to tears. Capriati said she felt chills as she basked in the Center Court applause, accepting the trophy from track star Maurice Greene and Evert.
"A surreal feeling. I can't really explain it," she said. "I felt genuine happiness from the people. I'm looking over at my family, it was just an amazing feeling. The past, nothing went through my mind at all. It's here and now and that's it."
Capriati is also the first American-born female to win the French Open since Evert in 1986. The quest for the first Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988 will continue later this month at the third leg, Wimbledon.
But first things first. The French title completed a long journey for Capriati, who came here as a giggly 14-year-old in 1990, and reached the semifinals in her Grand Slam debut. In between were a couple of first-round losses and far too many years away from Paris, as Capriati first had to correct a life course that saw her arrested for shoplifting and treated for drug abuse.
The road back has been grueling. And Saturday's 2 hour 21-minute marathon certainly was the longest step for the fourth-seeded Capriati. Clijsters, seeded 12th, who was playing in her first Grand Slam final at 18, showed considerable calm and class.
"Of course, it's heartbreaking," she said. "I gave it everything I had, so I can't blame myself that I lost. You are standing with two players on the court, and the other one is trying as hard as you are. One of them has to lose and eventually it had to be me today."
Said Capriati: "I was just fighting till the end, you know, for my life out there. I just wanted to win so badly."
It didn't open as Capriati's best day. She was distracted and unfocused in losing the first set in 31 minutes, irritated about microphone noise from the umpire's chair and the fervent cheers of the Belgian fans. For Clijsters, this was practically a home match.
The first two sets were rather mundane and the suspense steadily built through the third, stroke by stroke, minute by minute. Clijsters launched forehand winners. Capriati responded by firing forehand winners. All the power meant they combined for 155 unforced errors.
They traded breaks early in the 77-minute third set and stayed on serve until the 13th game. Clijsters was broken at 30 when she misfired on a backhand, sending it long. With Capriati leading 7-6, she came within two points of the match four times. She fought off three break points and lost the game on the fourth break point with a backhand error.
For two exhausted players, the level of play stayed quite high. They went back on serve and the next crack came at 9-9 when Capriati broke Clijsters at love. However, Capriati could not win it, losing her serve at 30 when Clijsters' forehand passing shot clipped the net and sailed past her.
At 10-10, Clijsters was broken again and the numbers were getting so high, it seemed almost silly. Finally, Capriati held serve to win the title, subtly changing her strategy, moving forward and forcing the issue. She missed her first match point, knocking a backhand wide before winning it on the second.
Capriati reveled in the drama.
"I love it," she said. "I'd rather have a match like that than just a real easy one where you really have to work for it."
Capriati knows something about coming back when few expected she would make it. The cautionary tale is now talking about a Grand Slam tale.
"Of course, I find flaws," she said of herself. "For the most part, I'm happy and content with myself. I'm proud of myself. I didn't know if I would make it through, but I did."
The dream ending may included Prince Charming, as she noted earlier in the tournament, but the only princes on hand were the Prince Philippe of Belgium and Prince Albert of Monaco.
"It'll do," said Capriati, smiling.