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Capriati's story: flavor of fiction

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WIMBLEDON, England - Jennifer Capriati has been a cautionary tale and a comeback saga, a teen facing trouble and a mature adult confronting athletic history.

As Wimbledon moves into the second week today with a "Marathon Monday" of round-of-16 women's and men's matches, all eyes will be on a 25-year-old woman now living up to all the expectations from all those years ago.

Her every move will be assessed and analyzed as she tries to keep alive a Grand Slam dream.

She's halfway there, winner of the Australian and French opens, a story that, on the face of it, can't possibly be true.

But gloriously, it is.

"Right now, I'm not surprised by anything," Capriati said last week, trying to put into perspective the past months and years.

Yet to win Wimbledon, Capriati will have to negotiate tricky matches and shed the tentativeness that was evident in her game during an opening week in which she didn't lose a set but didn't play with much fire, either.

Today, she meets Sandrine Testud of France, a veteran opponent accustomed to fourth-round exits.

But if she advances to the quarterfinals, Capriati could more than meet her match. Her likely opponent would be No. 5 Serena Williams, who has been talking endlessly about how badly she has played while losing only eight games in three matches.

Few would be surprised if Wimbledon wound up with a Williams sisters final, with Serena beating the reigning champion, Venus.

For now, it's Capriati who brings drama to the tournament, as the images from the past keep intruding on the present.

There's Capriati, the gangly, smiling 15-year-old, reaching the 1991 Wimbledon semifinal at the start of what was supposed to be a golden career.

And then, of course, there is the Capriati mug shot with nose ring and puffy face, a vision of burnout and lost dreams. For her, hard times included being cited for shoplifting, arrested for marijuana possession and sent to drug rehabilitation.

Her career snapped like kindling. She dropped off the tour after the 1993 U.S. Open, reappeared for an event in Philadelphia in November 1994 and then came back again in February 1996, one month before her 20th birthday.

She acknowledged that she harbored doubts of reaching the top level again.

"I just thought everything was kind of going against me," she said.

There are no easy answers as to why Capriati has regained her place in the game. Beyond skill, there is her apparent happiness with being reunited with her father and coach, Stefano, and training with her brother Steven, 21. And she is clearly fitter than in previous years, even running her brother into the ground during conditioning drills.

"I didn't want to give up on it," she said. "And I had a long life to live still ahead of me. I wouldn't feel good about looking down the road in the future and looking back and feeling like I never gave it 100 percent. So I just kept going and eventually things got better."

She changed her outlook.

"I guess maybe I just stopped being so critical of myself and so harsh on myself and just expecting so much from myself," she said. "I just gave in: 'I'm going to try my best and whatever happens, happens.' "

She also fell back on her past exploits, trying to summon up the ability that she always had. A baseliner who hit the ball with precision, Capriati was heralded at the start of her career as the next Chris Evert. In recent months, though, she has added power to her baseline arsenal, as well as belief that she could rekindle her career.

"I mean, I was up there once," Capriati said. "So it's not like you lose it all of a sudden or something that leaves you. I think you're born with it. So it's just a matter of putting it all together."

Winning the Australian and French opens back-to-back surprised Capriati and shocked the sport.

"Right now, it's just becoming more believable for me," she said.

Lindsay Davenport said the keys to Capriati's rejuvenation are her serve and growing confidence.

"Her serve was a huge liability for a number of years," said Davenport, the No. 3 seed here. "She would throw in a lot of double faults. Definitely, she is much more consistent on her serve.

"Other than that, I always thought she competed well, she moved well, she hit the ball well. But I think just holding her serve a little bit more has helped her. Just the confidence now, she can hit the winner at the right time. A lot of times that's all you need, one of those Grand Slam titles."

Now, she has two, aims for a third and doesn't dare think of the fourth, in the U.S. Open later this summer. The last player to win the Grand Slam was Steffi Graf in 1988.

Through it all, the fans have stuck with Capriati. Maybe they remember her as the fresh-faced teen in that golden summer. Or maybe they remember her struggles. Whatever, they're with her now.

"Even when times were bad, they were still behind me," she said. "Now they're behind me for all the right reasons, not just because I'm just doing well again. It's almost like they've experienced what I've gone through, the ups and downs. It's been a ride together, I guess."

Featured matches

Today's men's singles

Pete Sampras (1), U.S., vs. Roger Federer (15), Switzerland

Andre Agassi (2), U.S., vs. Nicolas Kiefer (19), Germany

Patrick Rafter (3), Australia, vs. Mikhail Youzhny, Russia

Marat Safin (4), Russia, vs. Arnaud Clement (13), France

Today's women's singles

Venus Williams (2), U.S., vs. Nadia Petrova, Russia

Lindsay Davenport (3), U.S., vs. Jelena Dokic (14), Yugoslavia

Jennifer Capriati (4), U.S., vs. Sandrine Testud (15), France

Serena Williams (5), U.S., vs. Magdalena Maleeva (12), Bulgaria

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