Clijsters saw that Capriati was tiring and she heard it too. "She was puffing," Clijsters said.
The Belgian teenager had just equalized their match, winning the second set with a gambling topspin half-volley winner.
And then, just as quickly, Clijsters was gone. Maybe there is something to Capriati's kick-boxing regimen. She has been training with a former world kick-boxing champion, who is here in her entourage, and the defending champion and top-seeded player did everything but take No. 4 Clijsters out with a swift left foot Thursday, winning their semifinal, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1.
The first game of the third set was pivotal. Capriati fought off a break point when Clijsters' attempted drop shot landed in the net and went on to take a 3-0 lead before Clijsters won her lone game of the set.
And so, Capriati erased the doubts about her fitness and potential second-year blues, earning a place in the final against third-seeded Martina Hingis of Switzerland, a rematch of last year's final. Hingis, who beat eighth-seeded Monica Seles in three sets in the semifinals, is 5-3 against Capriati but has lost the last three matches they've played.
Capriati and Hingis have effectively traded places.
"For the first time going up against her, it's like she is the underdog and I'm the one kind of favored to win because I won it last year," Capriati said. "And I definitely know how she feels being in that position because I was in that position last year."
Said Hingis: "She has to defend the title and I'm the rookie."
Overconfidence didn't help Hingis last year. After beating Serena and Venus Williams to reach the final, the feeling in the locker room was that Hingis felt the heavy lifting was over, especially because another hard hitter, Lindsay Davenport, was out of the way.
Capriati in a Grand Slam final was an unknown quantity, a seeming novelty. After losing, 6-4, 6-3, Hingis got the message that Capriati was a powerful force who could easily dismiss her.
Capriati again beat Hingis at the French Open, in the semifinals, on her way to winning the second leg of the Grand Slam last year. After that, the 25-year-old reached the semifinals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and was named female athlete of the year by Associated Press.
Since the French Open, Capriati has not won a title. Hingis ended an 11-month drought by winning two weeks ago at Sydney but has not won a Grand Slam tournament since the 1999 Australian Open. She has masked her desperation with an omnipresent smile but redoubled her physical efforts after ankle surgery last year.
"It's written in the media and then maybe it's somewhere in the back of your head, but I knew I didn't have quite the game at that point to always raise it another notch in the finals," said Hingis, who will be playing in her sixth straight Australian Open final. "The last year here, I was tired, and at the French Open, Jennifer just played well and I wasn't just there. She was just better at that point.
"Over the last two, three years, it was different circumstances. The other girls caught up with me and I just couldn't raise it. But now I think I'm moving forward and playing better than ever."
Hingis appears more comfortable in the role of pursuer, losing only one set in six matches. Through the first five rounds, she dropped only 14 games. Capriati has lost two sets but seemed to relish the challenge.
Capriati has found strength from her family and friends. Last year, her mother, Denise, could not make the trip because of hip surgery, but she was able to travel to Melbourne this time. Two years ago, Denise and Jennifer read about a local center for cancer victims and picked up the phone, arranging for several of the young adults to come to the tournament.
A tight bond was formed. After the Clijsters match, Jennifer's mind was on a friend who could not make it, a young man named Darren.
She explained that he would be at the final but had been absent for the semifinal because he was receiving a blood transfusion.
"In his mind, he's going to beat this," Denise said. "They've been terrific friends over the last three years."
Darren did send a message of support, Jennifer said.
"He said that I'm The Ledge," she said, smiling at the symmetry.
The words were the ones she used years ago, in 1990, to describe legend Martina Navratilova. Now they were being used about her. No wonder Capriati was smiling.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
What: Australian Open women's championship
Who: Jennifer Capriati (1), United States, vs. Martina Hingis (3), Switzerland
When: 6:30 p.m. PST today