Aus Open 2002: Capriati scripts a stunning sequel in Australia
By Suzi Petkovski, Tennis Week, February 2002:
Rarely does the sequel beat the original. Jennifer Capriati was mindful of that as she returned to the Australian Open, site of her fairy-tale first Slam win 12 months before.
“It’s pretty tough to top last year,” Capriati conceded. “I mean, that’s the best I’ve ever played.”
But Capriati had cause to reconsider after her courageous 4-6 7-6(7) 6-2 comeback victory over Martina Hingis in a dramatic 2002 Australian Open final played in brutal heat.
“I don’t know which one was better, winning last year or this year,” beamed the 25-year-old after an arduously successful first Grand Slam defense. “I don’t know what there is to come. But definitely, this is the most unique victory.” Jen, we’re, like, really stoked for you and stuff.
Capriati recovered from a 6-4 4-0 deficit and stood a point from 5-1. She stared down four match points in two separate games, as well as the tiebreak, in the second set. For the first half of the match, the American’s play had been inhibited; a contrast to the blazing winners of last year. But on those critical match points, Capriati was a lion. Not for 40 years has a woman overcome match points in a Grand Slam final; no one has ever survived four.
All this was achieved in horrific heat that turned the Australian Open final into the Australian Open furnace. Temperatures in the stands hit 90°F, but on court the mercury was a brain-frying 107°F.
“It was just really hard to breathe; the air was just so thick and so hot,”
said Capriati of the toughest on-court conditions she’d ever endured. A big call coming from a Floridian.
For all the 130 minutes of the final, the capacity 15,000 crowd wasn’t watching a sporting contest so much as wincing at a form of cruel and unusual punishment. In between long, searching points both players sought relief by taking the seats of line judges, slumping exhausted over the courtside slock, leaving the court several times, and in the case of Hingis, donning an ice vest. During the 10-minute break at the end of the 66-minute second set, both women were packed in ice in the locker room – “quite a sight,” Martina related.
As a Hingis backhand floated wide to give Capriati the tumultuous second set, the Swiss Miss hurled her racquet from baseline to coutside seat. She sensed she’d thrown away her last chance for victory. And so it proved. Hingis dreaded the thought of going back into the inferno. “I didn’t really believe in it anymore.” When they returned, the 21-year old was running on fumes. She’d been on court for a three-set doubles final victory the previous day, also in scorching heat, and fooled no one when she made the first break of the decider to go ahead 2-1.
“My head was all over the place,” recalled Martina. “I knew I probably wouldn’t last if I really needed to.”
Hingis’ physical collapse was as painful as it was inevitable. On her penultimate service game, the spring gone from her step, she foot-faulted to hand the break to Capriati. Finally, on the Hingis serve, Capriati clinched consecutive Aussie crowns with a forehand return winner on her first match point. Having won just four of the first 14 games, Capriati hammered out 13 of the next 17.
Physical strength and staying power, so impressive a feature of Capriati’s triumph in 2001, again proved decisive. This year, a new face joined Capriati’s travelling troupe: trainer Chantal Menard, a Milan-based, former world kickboxing champion. But even more impessive was Capriati’s mental steel. “The whole time, even though I was coming from behind, I thought I could still win this,” Jennifer revealed. “I never really thought of myself as being defeated out there.”
Indeed, Capriati was indomitable in the face of many mental battles: the strain of defending a Slam for the first time, the jolting loss to Alexandra Stevenson in her first match at Sydney, and she strained hip flexors that she carried into the tournament. She came back from a break down in the third set against Greek newcomer Eleni Daniilidou and staved off a set point against Rita Grande in the fourth round. Agasint the erratic Amelie Mauresmo in the quarters, Capriati was ruthless, winning 6-2 6-2, and in a semifinal of fierce, primal hitting against Kim Clijsters, she broke free 6-1 in the third.
But the most perilous test came in the final against Hingis. “I had a lot to deal with out thee,” Capriati reflected.
“Just being the defending champion, trying to keep the No.1 status, dealing with the conditions, and I didn’t feel like I was playing my best tennis in the beginning. So it means a lot to me that, as long as you just stay in there and try your hardest and fight, it can win you matches and that’s exactly what I did today.”