Tennis: Capriati made to feel old

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The Independent Online
Watching their contrasting performances on separate courts at the French Open here yesterday, it was difficult to reconcile the fact that Jennifer Capriati had beaten Steffi Graf to win the gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

That proved to be the summit of the young American's career, a triumph achieved shortly before she succumbed to disaffection with life on the tour and began to feature on the Florida police files after a shop-lifting incident and drug possession.

Yesterday, when Graf opened her defence of the French title with a straight- sets victory against Larisa Neiland, of Latvia, on the Centre Court, the 20-year-old Capriati's latest comeback slithered to a halt on the clay of Court No 10. Her first appearance in a Grand Slam championship for more than two and a half years produced the same result as her last one at the 1993 United States Open: a first-round defeat.

The former prodigy was beaten, 6-3, 7-5, by Jing Qiam Yi, a 22-year-old from Peking marking her debut at Roland Garros by winning her first match in Grand Slam tournaments. Her previous attempt, at the Australian Open in January, ended in a first-round defeat by Florencia Labat, of Argentina.

If yesterday's result were not disappointment enough for Capriati, her hopes of defending the Olympic title in Atlanta in July are about to be dashed. Within days it will be confirmed that the Americans have not nominated her for a wild card as one of their four entries, Monica Seles, Chanda Rubin, Mary Joe Fernadez and Lindsay Davenport all being in the world's top 20.

According to the rankings, Capriati's defeat yesterday was not even a surprise. The American, who only managed to jog the computer's memory in March, is listed 38 places below Yi at No 109.

Nor was Capriati able to seek refuge in tales of misfortune on the important points. Although hitting spectacular winners from time to time, she donated 34 unforced errors to Yi, 11 of them double faults - four of which occurred on game points. In the end it was as if she almost greeted defeat with a sense of relief. "My game was just not quite there," she said.

How sad it was to compare the current Capriati with the confident, bubbly 14-year-old who was a semi-finalist here in her first Grand Slam in 1990 and proceeded to amaze spectators with her prodigious progress to the last four at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1991.

"I've changed," she said, "I've just gotten older." In other words, she agreed, she allowed her emotions to affect her play nowadays. "I let them get to me. It's both physical and mental. It's not easy. The gap [in her career] makes a difference. I know it's going to take patience and determination to really work on getting to where I was or where I want to be."

So there they were: Capriati, the American reared to be a champion who attracted $1m in endorsements before striking a ball as a professional, and Yi, who says she was dragooned into playing tennis by a schoolteacher at the age of eight and now hands all but 35 per cent of her prize money to the Chinese government and her national tennis federation.

"I had no choice about tennis," Yi said through an interpreter. "I was selected by a schoolteacher because I run fast. I had never seen tennis before, and I had to train for six hours every day, but I am happy playing it now."

Yi's first recollection of wat- ching tennis on television featured a match involving Steffi Graf, who continues to dominate the scene, injuries permitting. Although the cham- pion's performance in defeating Neiland tended to be patchy, she was pleased overall and appears to have rid herself of the poor form which plagued her recently during the Italian Open.

Thomas Muster began his defence of the men's singles title in confident fashion, showing little trace of his ankle trouble in defeating the Dane Frederik Fetterlein, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.

Greg Rusedski, the last remaining Briton, survived a marathon first-round match to defeat Grant Doyle, an Australian qualifier, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5, 2-6, 7-5. Doyle, ranked 233 places below Rusedski, double-faulted on the second match point. It was the first time that Rusedski, who now plays No 16 seed Michael Stich, has won over five sets.

"I've lost two five-setters in the past," Rusedski recalled, "against Andrei Medvedev here on Centre Court in the third round and against Boris Becker in Australia. I played well in the first set today, and all of a sudden he got a second wind and we were out there for three and a half hours."

Rusedski, who has never played Stich before except in doubles, added: "I'm going to have to serve a lot better than I did today and take a lot more chances on his serve. I think you tend to be more relaxed and go for your shots more against a top player."