Tuesday, September 2, 2003

NEW YORK — Trapped in a match that wouldn’t end, a rain-delayed ordeal that stretched from morning into night, Jennifer Capriati kept calm. Took a nap. Even munched on a piece of bread during a changeover.

Faced with the possibility of a third rain delay, however, she finally lost focus — letting Elena Dementieva back into the second set of their fourth-round U.S. Open contest.

As a stubborn mist dripped down, a third set beckoned.

“Maybe I felt a little tired then and was just kind of not in my concentration mode,” Capriati said. “Then I realized, ‘What am I doing here? Let’s get it together and try to finish this match.’”

Capriati did just that, winning two straight games to close out Dementieva 6-2, 7-5 last night in a fitful match that began late, was delayed twice and finally finished under the prime-time lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Wet weather wreaked havoc at the National Tennis Center yesterday, forcing the delay of nearly all of the 73 Open matches scheduled to take place. More than 60 matches were postponed. Second-seeded Justine Henin-Hardenne was able to complete her match last night, defeating Dinara Safina 6-0, 6-3.

“It was very tough,” the sixth-seeded Capriati said of a match that took nearly eight hours to complete. “After the first, second time I was all right. But the third, I didn’t know if it was going to happen again. It was getting pretty annoying.

“It’s hard to play matches like that because your rhythm’s broken off, you’re thinking ahead, worrying that if you don’t finish you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

Up 4-2 in the second set and on serve following rain delay No. 2, Capriati appeared well on her way to both a victory and a day off. Two sloppy forehand errors later, she had given up a break.

Previously listless, Dementieva then crushed two powerful forehands of her own, breaking Capriati at love and seizing a 5-4 lead.

Capriati, who had been in the middle of eating dinner when the call came to return to the court, took one last look at the sky — and decided to pick up her pace.

“It was a little slippery on the lines,” she said. “But I didn’t want to stop. [The rain] was starting to come again. And I was saying, ‘No, please, stay away.’ I should motivate myself like that more often.”

Holding with a series of quick service points, Capriati pushed Dementieva to match point after the No. 11 seed served up an ugly, corkscrewing double fault. With actor-friend Matthew Perry looking on, Capriati then pummeled a forehand that nearly decapitated an onrushing Dementieva, leaving the scruffy-looking Perry to pump his fist.

Waving to the crowd — that is, what was left of it — Capriati let out a visible sigh, relieved to be off the court and on to the quarterfinals.

Last year, a stressed-out Capriati left the Open in shambles, a come-from-ahead loser to Amelie Mauresmo; this season, she’s slipped through a Williams sister-free draw nearly unnoticed, her powerful groundstrokes complemented by a newfound calm.

“I don’t have to prove anything to anybody or myself, really,” she said. “I realized that I’ve achieved a lot in my tennis and my career. That’s one less worry. That was kind of a worry before. But I’ve let that go.

“I look at my life and how old I am, 27, and I’m really starting to enjoy it again, not stressing out. You think you learn that lesson once, but then you have to got through the whole process again.”

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