Tennis: Capriati finds the stomach for a fight

Click to follow
THE latest tale of adversity from the Australian Open ended on a note of triumph here yesterday. Jennifer Capriati came within two points of losing in the second round, but just when the bubblegum seemed about to burst, the 16-year-old American rescued the situation, 6-7, 7-5, 6-2.

On the day before her match against Argentina's Florencia Labat, a virus caused Capriati to scratch from her doubles partnership with Steffi Graf. After a hospital examination, Capriati spent the rest of the day in bed at her hotel. The signs appeared ominous for a tournament which had been deprived of Andre Agassi and Goran Ivanisevic before the event and which had lost Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl on the opening two days.

Even though Capriati decided to play, the seventh seed did not look fit enough to counter a strong challenge by the left- handed Labat. The Argentinian, ranked No 46 in the world, won the first-set tie-break, 10-8, on her fourth set point after saving two set points.

Labat then had four points for a 5-1 lead in the second set, but double-faulted to lose her serve. Continuing to outmanoeuvre her opponent from the baseline, she then led 5-3, 15-30 with Capriati serving.

At this point the Argentinian directed a backhand wide, and Capriati struck, winning the game with a forehand down the line and a backhand cross-court winner, and then breaking Labat to love to turn the match.

The Argentinian could not hide her disappointment. 'At 4-1, 40-15, I thought I would win, but I lost the chance,' she said. 'At that moment I knew why players are in the top 10. She started to play better and go for every point, and I started to feel the pressure.'

A year ago, leaving Flinders Park after a quarter-final defeat by a better-known Argentinian, Gabriela Sabatini, a distressed Capriati admitted that tennis had become more work than fun. Winning the gold medal in Barcelona in July restored the smile to her face until she lost in straight sets in the third round of the United States Open to the Canadian,

Patricia Hy.

Determination prevented a similar occurrence here. 'I decided I might as well go for it, because that's the only chance I had,' Capriati said. 'In the beginning I didn't feel I had the power, but I got better and better. The adrenalin helped me stay in the match, and I became more aggressive and came to the net.'

Some of her volleys would have done credit to Stefan Edberg, who closed the show with a smooth performance in defeating David Prinosil, a German-based Czech, 6-2, 6-0, 6-1.

Day four was reminiscent of one of those cool, wet sessions commonplace at Wimbledon, with two obvious differences: the absence of grass and the bonus of the retractable Centre Court roof. The showcase matches ran to schedule, and the remainder gradually caught up after the showers, the sudden drop in temperature to 23C from the previous day's 35C making it seem as if the players had been taken out of the frying pan and put into the fridge.

There is always an air of unreality when this magnificent stadium is transformed into an indoor arena. Fortunately, only two matches were played before the roof could be opened again. Mary Joe Fernandez, the fifth seed from America, advanced to the third round at the expense of Shi-ting Wang, from Taiwan, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the fourth seed, defeated Laura Gildemeister.

The three Bulgarian Maleeva sisters, seeded together for the first time, continued to progress through the lower half of the draw, and Graf, the second seed, maintained steady form with a straight-sets win against Jennifer Santrock, who likes to listen to music on a personal stereo during changeovers (perhaps because she was born in Charleston and lives in Piano, Texas).

Pete Sampras was not so devastating as he was in his opening match against Carl-Uwe Steeb, chiefly because his Swedish opponent, Magnus Larsson, served with power and accuracy and was prepared to take a mighty swing every time a ball came within striking distance of his awesome, if erratic, forehand.

The American third seed was pleased to advance, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, because there were times when Larsson did not so much chip at the 1990 United States Open champion's confidence as hack lumps off it. 'I had to work hard to win,' Sampras said, 'and I think this match will help me out in the later rounds.'

Larsson did not want for vocal support. The tournament's merchandising department, accustomed to seeing Melbourne transform into Stockholm South during the championships, have produced a T-shirt bearing the legend Team Sweden. This was much in evidence on Court Five when Christian Bergstrom played Henrik Holm. The players were greeted with the Swedish national anthem. Bergstrom, who eliminated Ivan Lendl in the first round, continued his progress with a five-set win.

Monica Seles is not alone in attracting grunting imitators. Thomas Muster, of Austria, was treated to reciprocal farmyard noises during his match against Brett Steven on Court One. Steven, a 23-year-old New Zealander competing in his first Grand Slam tournament, rounded things off with a cry of jubilation after winning in straight sets.

Byron Black, a qualifier from Zimbabwe, ranked No 124 in the world, is another visiter who is having a profitable week. His third round opponent is the South African Wayne Ferreira, the 10th seed. Black is looking forward to the experience. 'Growing up, I was never allowed to play in South Africa, so I never got the chance to play him down there,' he said.

On a special day for Washington, MaliVai of that ilk celebrated with a straight-sets win against Daniel Vacek, from Prague. Most of the Americans here watched Bill Clinton's inauguration as President with varying degrees of interest.

For the French, it was a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. Arnaud Boetsch saved six match points and defeated Sweden's Jonas Svensson, 10-8 in the fifth set, while on an adjacent court Cedric Pioline was unable to convert six match points and lost to Alexander Volkov, the 16th seed, 8-6 in the fifth set. In addition to this, Thierry Champion saved five match points before losing to Amos Mansdorf in straight sets. C'est la vie.

(Photograph omitted)