Injured Capriati postpones return

Jennifer Capriati's second attempt at a comeback ended before it had even begun here last night when she withdrew injured from the Open Gaz de France, a women's indoor tournament, only a couple of hours before she was due on court for her first-round match.

The decision stunned everyone involved in the event at which the 19-year- old American was by far the biggest draw.

Citing a pulled muscle in her right side, sustained during a practice session yesterday morning with the Bulgarian Maggie Maleeva, the former adolescent prodigy whose career went off the rails two and a half years ago said: "I don't want to push anything to make it worse. I was really looking forward to playing, so it's very unfortunate. I came all this way and wanted to play and felt like I was ready. But it's OK. There's nothing I can do. Something like this had to happen."

That was the only note of ruefulness struck by an oddly detached Capriati during a packed press conference at the Stade de Coubertin, where an atmosphere of mounting expectation had suddenly been transformed into one of disbelief and acute anticlimax.

Scheduled to play Sabine Appelmans of Belgium, Capriati had helped salvage interest in a tournament from which Steffi Graf, last year's winner, had already pulled out because of her foot injury.

This should have been Capriati's first appearance since November 1994, when comeback number one, in Philadelphia, began and ended with a first- round defeat at the hands of the German, Anke Huber. Having missed the whole of the previous year, during which she had been arrested on a drugs charge, Capriati had intended carrying on, but when illness and injury struck she found the motivation to train had disappeared again.

It was in part the encouragement of Graf during the US Open last September that led to her picking up a racket again, and when, at the beginning of this month, she announced she wanted to take part in Paris, the Women's Tour Association, ever keen to promote characters and competitiveness, was as pleased as it was surprised. The mood has now changed.

Capriati, who had looked in good shape in training in the days leading up to the tournament, was vague about the nature of the injury, but when pressed said: "It's a pulled muscle between the hamstring and the lower back. I guess when you haven't been playing for a while your muscles are very tight. I was going for a ball and I went too far and maybe the muscle hadn't completely warned up."

She said she tried playing on, and the decision to withdraw was not made until she arrived back at the stadium in the early evening and treatment from the WTA physiotherapist failed to solve the problem.

The question of when she might try playing again was deflected. "When it feels like I can play," she said. Kathy Martin, the WTA's primary health care provider, was wheeled out to fill in details of the injury, explaining that "it was difficult to say" how long it would take for Capriati to recover. And while her father and coach, Stefano, said it might be possible for her to play next week in Essen, whatever her stated intentions are from hereon will now inevitably be regarded with a certain scepticism.

Asked about her decision to return to the game, Capriati said: "All we can do it what makes us happy, and I've just missed my time on the Tour. I've had a long break. But tennis is still inside me. I'm still young and I never said I was never going to play again."

But quite when the real Capriati comeback will happen remains as much of an unknown as ever.

Claire Taylor, the 20-year-old from Banbury, upset the second seed, Vera Zhukovets of Belarus, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in the first round of the LTA women's satellite event in Sheffield yesterday.

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