Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Cool Capriati set to collect her payback

Troubled American's latest comeback seems like the real thing after defeating Huber in compelling struggle
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The Independent Online
THESE DAYS, her clothes are innocent of sponsorship. Ten years ago, in another lifetime, when she was launched on to the tennis circuit like a new kind of pop star, Jennifer Capriati was practically having to fight off the people who wanted a piece of her. She came into the game, at 13 years of age, with a million dollars' worth of endorsement contracts already signed. A lifetime later, the T-shirt and the skirt are as white as a surplice. And yesterday, when she won a first-round match as full of drama and meaning as some entire tournaments, she wore them as if to say: this really is a fresh start.

You could never hope to see two tennis players who wanted victory more than Capriati and her opponent, Anke Huber, in this match. Different reasons, same desperation. In the end, Capriati won, 5-7, 6-3, 9-7, but it took two days to do it, 155 minutes of sometimes unbearably gruelling tennis that started in the chilly shadows of a sunlit Monday evening and ended in the stark daylight of Tuesday afternoon.

Huber, aged 24, was ranked No 4 in the world three years ago. Now, struggling to recover from surgery on her Achilles tendon, she is down to No 30. Capriati, ranked No 6 in 1991, when she was 15 years old, is struggling to recover from a life that went out of control. After starting this year ranked just outside the top 100, she is up to No 44 and hoping that her latest comeback is the real thing.

The match began on the Centre Court at about half past six on Monday night, and the intensity was there from the start. Huber served the opening game, and there were seven deuces before Capriati won it. After 45 minutes, Huber bagged the set. Half an hour later, Capriati had come back from 0-3 to win six straight games and level the match. Before the start of the final set Huber, who had fallen heavily, took a five-minute injury time-out while a physio treated her thigh. Capriati wrapped a pale blue towel around her lower limbs in an attempt to keep out the evening chill.

As the last sunlight disappeared below the rim of the stadium, the darkening air was thick with emotion. For another 50 minutes the two fought it out, Huber's hissing forehands, hit low with an exaggerated frying-pan grip, meeting the solid thwack of Capriati's baseline defence. The rallies went on forever, although both players were going all out for length and angle. Huber chattered furiously to herself, casting regular anxious glances towards her boyfriend, Andrei Medvedev. Capriati stayed silent, only occasionally sliding a glance at her estranged parents and her new coach, Harold Solomon. Eventually, two heavy falls for Capriati in the failing light brought on the referee, Alan Mills, who called an overnight adjournment at a few minutes past nine o'clock, with the score at 5-5, disappointing a frozen but enraptured crowd.

When the players reconvened at just after three o'clock yesterday, it was in front of a different audience, who knew little of the true nature of the struggle. Capriati and Huber, however, resumed hostilities with exactly the same ferocity. Six games, five of them service breaks, went by in 20 minutes before Huber's agonised double fault gave Capriati the game.

The American girl and Wimbledon have some history together. In 1990, aged 14 years and 90 days, Capriati became the youngest seed in Grand Slam history and the youngest player to win a match in the history of the tournament. The following year she removed the holder, Martina Navratilova, in the quarter-finals, the nine-time champion's earliest dismissal from the tournament in 14 years. By the end of 1993, however, Capriati's ranking was starting to drop and her career was disappearing in a welter of tabloid stories about shoplifting and drug use.

All she really wanted to do was paint her nails black, get her navel pierced, and hang around the shopping mall, like any normal American teenager. But that wasn't on the agenda for a girl who had been aimed since childhood at a different destiny. A two-year withdrawal from the tennis circuit seemed to have achieved little when she re-emerged in 1996 as a confused and unhappy 20 year old. She was the Awful Warning, whose pitiful fate caused attitudes to be changed and rules to be rewritten.

Now, perhaps, things may be looking up. She showed tremendous grit to beat Huber, and spoke afterwards with clarity and charm. "It was a very tough first round for both of us," she said. "We were both playing well and giving it all we had, and we were both so into the moment when the suspension came. I was pretty wired, and I still had a lot of energy. But I was able to relax and get some sleep. When we came back, we both had to be wound up. In that situation, you don't have time to get into the match. And when she was hitting with that kind of pace there wasn't much I could do except try to get the ball back. I don't think either one of us deserved to walk away a loser today."

What, someone asked, had she learnt from the problems in her life? "I think I've grown up a lot. It's been a very interesting road and I take whatever I can from the experience. It's coming together for me now. I've stopped putting so much pressure on myself, and I think that's helped me play better. Right now I feel like there are really no expectations on me. People don't think I even play anymore, you know? So right now I'm pretty much playing for fun."

Tennis owes something to Jennifer Capriati, whose life was almost ruined by her talent for the game, and by what other people tried to make of it. There have been a few false dawns, but yesterday suggested that the payback may be on its way.