Capriati's gold carries added weight On grand scale, win over Graf is major


BARCELONA, Spain -- In a competition perceived by many as meaningless, Jennifer Capriati yesterday recorded one of the most meaningful victories of her career.

Capriati, 16, defeated Steffi Graf in the women's Olympic tennis final, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. It wasn't the same as winning a Grand Slam event, but for a player trying to crack the sport's elite, it was close.

On the red clay of Vall d'Hebron, Capriati displayed newfound resolve, overcame her last remaining nemesis and won an Olympic gold medal.

It was like, really neat.

At her moment of triumph, she threw both arms in the air, then covered her face in disbelief. Waiting for the medals ceremony, she couldn't stop smiling and bobbing up and down.

For two weeks, she had watched other American athletes on the victory stand, thinking, "Geez, I bet that would be cool." Yesterday, she had an Olympic moment to call her own.

"It was so emotional, I had chills the whole time," Capriati said in her post-match news conference. "I couldn't believe I was up there. I still can't believe it."

Capriati prevented a German sweep of the day's matches. In the final of men's doubles, Boris Becker and Michael Stich beat Wayne Ferreira and Piet Norval of South Africa, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3.

In today's men's singles final, Marc Rosset of Switzerland plays Spaniard Jordi Arrese. Also today, the women's doubles final will have Americans Mary Joe and Gigi Fernandez vs. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez of Spain.

Capriati's victory comes only a few months after she was deep in a teen-age state of rebellion, expressing ambivalence over tennis, painting her nails black, immersing herself in rock 'n' roll.

The Olympics, though, are one big athletic party, and they provided the perfect atmosphere for her resurgence. Capriati went to the beach, hung out with U.S. swimmers and rowers, spent hours relaying computer messages to other athletes.

Most of the U.S. tennis players stayed in the Olympic Village only a few days, then moved to an air-conditioned hotel nearby. Capriati, however, kept acting like her teen-aged self, running from event to event, staying out late at night.

It helped her relax.

It made the game fun.

Yesterday's victory, coming just three weeks before the U.S. Open, provided clear evidence that Capriati is rejuvenated. Prior to the Olympics, she was 0-4 lifetime against Graf.

"It's huge, her first major win, actually," U.S. women's tennis coach Marty Riessen said. "It's going to be right there if she ever wins Wimbledon or the U.S. Open -- and it was a stunning victory, too."

Capriati not only came from behind, she did it in gritty fashion. The match presented many opportunities for her to fold, but time after time she rallied, silencing the largely German crowd chanting, "Steffi! Steffi!"

Graf, 23, won her first five Olympic matches without dropping a set. But a player who was ranked No. 1 in the world for a record 3 1/2 years clearly had less at stake than a player who has yet to reach the finals of a Grand Slam.

Just eight years ago, Graf was in a position very similar to Capriati's, winning the Olympics at the age of 15. Tennis was only a demonstration sport then, but Graf said the victory helped launch her career.

"Nobody expected it, really," said Graf, who won the first official tennis gold medal in 1988. "It helped me a lot to believe in myself."

Yet, Graf said the Olympic triumph meant even more to Capriati, who had beaten every top woman but Graf. Capriati called it "definitely one of my greatest matches," ranking it with her Wimbledon quarterfinals triumph over Martina Navratilova in 1991.

To think, she seemed on the verge of getting trounced in the third set. Graf took a 2-1 lead, after losing her serve in the first game, rallying from love-30 for a break of her own in the second and winning four straight points in the third.

But Capriati fought back, breaking Graf again in the ninth game, pulling ahead 5-4 even after Graf recovered from triple break point. She then closed out the match by acing Graf on the second point.

Capriati's downward spiral began nearly a year ago, when she lost to Monica Seles in the U.S. Open semifinals in what Riessen called "one of the best matches I've ever seen."

This year, she was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the French Open and Wimbledon, but yesterday she was a different player entirely.

"It's going to help her tremendously," Riessen predicted. "It's going to change her life."

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