- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England Jennifer Capriati stood on the sideline at a practice court yesterday awaiting her turn to play. She could have been any weekend hacker, except the court was at Wimbledon and occupied by Andre Agassi.
"Hey, Jen, what's up?" Agassi said.
"Not much," Capriati replied with a smile that said otherwise.
What's up is this: With a captivating comeback from personal problems and tennis burnout, the one-time child prodigy is halfway to a rare sweep of the year's four Grand Slam events. Despite a sore knee she begins Wimbledon today as the tournament favorite, sentimental and otherwise.
"I'm an example that it's never too late," she said.
High expectations once caused Capriati's career to collapse. Now, more mature at 25, she shrugs off the pressure.
"It's not a problem," she said. "I'm not thinking about it at all. I know how hard it is to win a Grand Slam. I was very fortunate to win the past two."
Capriati claimed her first major title in January at the Australian Open, where she upset top-seeded Martina Hingis in the final. Less shocking but no less impressive was her triumph two weeks ago at the French Open, where she outlasted Kim Clijsters 12-10 in a dramatic final set.
At Wimbledon, Venus Williams is the defending champion and Hingis is the top seed. But everyone agrees the fourth-seeded Capriati will be tough to stop. She's scheduled to follow seven-time men's champion Pete Sampras onto Centre Court in the opening round today, when she plays Venezuelan Maria Vento.
"Jennifer has had an unbelievable year," 1999 champion Lindsay Davenport said. "She's the player to beat in everything this year, purely because of her results. But a lot depends on how people handle the conditions at Wimbledon."
The challenge of lawn tennis is unique because the ball tends to skid rather than bounce, which puts an emphasis on serving and quickness, neither Capriati's strength. But she's playing with the power and confidence to win on any surface.
A greater concern than the transition to grass may be tendinitis in her right knee, which began to bother her during the French Open. She hasn't played a match since Paris and withdrew from a tournament last week.
During yesterday's workout, she grimaced and pulled up hopping on her left foot at one point. Several times she rubbed and flexed her ailing knee. Other times she moved well and ripped winners down the line.
"You saw her practice," her father and coach, Stefano, said when asked about the knee. "It's OK. We'll see."
Tendinitis is a minor hurdle compared with what Capriati has overcome. Her painful past as a troubled teen included a drug bust and police mug shot published worldwide, the divorce of her parents, dismal first-round defeats and the teary news conferences that followed. And this was a player touted since childhood as the next Chris Evert.
Even before his daughter's birth, Stefano Capriati bragged that he had bred a tennis champion. By the time she was 3, he had her playing 100-shot rallies. At 10 she hit harder than Evert, her occasional practice partner.
In 1991, a 14-year-old Capriati became the youngest player to win a match at Wimbledon. A year later, she beat defending champion Martina Navratilova in the quarterfinals.
But the youngster began to recoil from the adulation and expectations. One early sign of trouble came in December 1993, when she was caught shoplifting a cheap ring at a mall. Five months later came the drug bust and resulting mug shot, in which she wore a nose ring and vacant gaze.
"I was so ugly and fat I just wanted to kill myself," she said later. "Mentally, I'd just lost it."
She left the women's tour in 1994, aborted several comebacks and went four years without winning a Grand Slam match. Finally, in 1999, Capriati settled back into the grind of playing regularly and slowly worked herself into the best shape of her life.
"We talked about her having this talent and looking back someday after not giving it her best," said her mother, Denise. "She finally realized that."
Last year her father began to coach her again. A former film stuntman who moved from Italy to the United States in his 20s, he was long regarded as an overambitious tennis parent who pushed his daughter too hard too soon. But he has been instrumental in her resurgence.
"Every day we learn a lot," he said. "I did certain things that were wrong. But if on second thought I did it another way, what would be the result? You don't know. So many factors have nothing to do with tennis."
The latest chapters of Capriati's career suggest a happy ending. On a women's tour rich in talent and personality, she has emerged as the dominant player. She has a chance to become only the fourth woman to sweep all four Grand Slam tournaments in a single year.
During a brief interview following yesterday's workout, Capriati succinctly summed things up.
"It's unbelievable," she said.
Sampras goes for a record eighth Wimbledon title and record-tying fifth straight, but another title is not a sure thing.
Sampras opens against Spanish clay-courter Francisco Clavet of Spain. The 29-year-old American is unbeaten in 28 straight matches at Wimbledon and since 1993 he's 53-1 at the All England Club.
Still, Wimbledon's perennial title holder seems more vulnerable this year.
Sampras hasn't reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal this year, hasn't won a tournament since Wimbledon last year and hasn't won a major aside from Wimbledon since 1997.

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