Unsightly First-Round Defeat for Capriati

Times Staff Writer

Another period of darkness proved to be the undoing of two-time defending champion Jennifer Capriati at the Australian Open, resulting in one of the biggest upsets in tennis' open era.

No, it was not that kind of darkness, nothing resembling the famous slide during the lost years of her teens. This period was literal, not figurative.

Instead of resuming her demanding fitness regime in the off-season, Capriati had eye surgery in November, then was in darkness for two weeks, and off the court even longer.

The operation left her half a step slow and turned her title defense into a rush job. Still, Capriati almost had enough power and will to get past 90th-ranked Marlene Weingartner of Germany on Monday at Melbourne Park, leading, 6-2, 3-0, and later coming within two points of victory.

Perhaps inevitably, though, the cracks couldn't remain papered over and Capriati slowly unraveled, double-faulting 10 times.

Weingartner, who squandered seven break points in the third set, kept pushing and gritting her teeth, and finally made Australian Open history, beating the third-seeded Capriati, 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, in the first round in 1 hour 49 minutes.

"This is special," Weingartner said. "I've never played on a Center Court before in a Grand Slam. I hope I will play a few more matches there."

Since the open era started in 1968, the defending women's champion had not lost in the first round here. It happened at Wimbledon in 1994 when Steffi Graf lost in the first round to Lori McNeil. But McNeil was a known quantity, having made the semifinals at the 1987 U.S. Open.

Weingartner, though an excellent junior player, has gone past the second round only twice in 16 Grand Slams, both times in Melbourne. She was better known for briefly having been coached by the controversial Jim Pierce, father of former French Open champion Mary Pierce.

The slight, hard-hitting German carved out history, though, needing a single match point, winning when Capriati netted a forehand after a baseline rally.

An emotionally deflated Capriati lost at Melbourne Park for the first time since the 2000 semifinals, ending a 14-match winning streak.

"I came here as a defending champion and maybe it didn't feel like I was at my best, but I put myself on the line and took that risk," Capriati said.

The eye procedure was to clear up clouding vision that was worsening last year. The condition was the most recent of Capriati's eye problems. Several years ago, she had laser surgery, then last summer she complained of poor night vision.

As recently as last week, Capriati was still sensitive to sunlight, practicing in sunglasses. Lack of training hurt her too.

"[The eyes] felt OK out there," said Capriati, who has not won a tournament since the 2002 Australian Open. "I would have to say, the recovery time wasn't enough, and I feel like I just didn't give myself enough chance to fully prepare. Probably if I wasn't the defending champion, I wouldn't have shown up."

While Capriati was sitting in darkness, the waif-like Weingartner was turning into a fitness machine under the guidance of her new Croatian coach, Borna Bikic. He said she was running sprints before and after matches, and she went on a 10-kilometer run the morning before the match against Capriati.

Weingartner, 23, who splits her time between Germany and Florida, was poised when asked what this victory might mean for tennis in her country.

"They were always a little bit negative because they had really unbelievable players like Steffi and Boris [Becker] and Anke [Huber]) and Michael [Stich]," Weingartner said. "That's why they put a lot of pressure on other German players. I've had some good results here and there. I just needed a little bit more time and then I can also be up there, I think."

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