Back to the future for Capriati

THE SIGHT and sound of teenaged female players pulverising tennis balls was not quite so commonplace when Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati contested a classic semi-final at the United States Open in 1991. Today they are due to meet again, in the fourth round, both having survived nightmare experiences in the intervening eight years.

THE SIGHT and sound of teenaged female players pulverising tennis balls was not quite so commonplace when Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati contested a classic semi-final at the United States Open in 1991. Today they are due to meet again, in the fourth round, both having survived nightmare experiences in the intervening eight years.

Seles was stabbed in the back by a deranged spectator in Germany in 1993. Capriati, weighed down with expectation, spent time in a drugs rehabilitation centre. One of the pleasures of the past week was to see them both competing vigorously, evidently enjoying their tennis without an underlying sense of desperation.

Capriati, ranked No 40 in the world, has had the tougher course to the last 16, defeating Iva Majoli, the former French Open champion, in straight sets in the first round, recovering from a set down to overcome the Dutch player Seda Noorlander in the second, and adding to her 100 per cent record against Nathalie Tauziat in the third with a 6-3, 1-6, 6-1 victory against the 1998 Wimbledon finalist.

Seles, the No 4 seed, who has not dropped a set, advanced to the fourth round with a 6-2, 6-3 win against Japan's Ai Sugiyama on Saturday night.

The 1991 US Open semi-final, won by Seles, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6, promised a major rivalry which failed to materialise. Seles has won five of her eight matches against Capriati since their first meeting, in the 1990 French Open semi-final, but they have only played each other once since 1992, Capriati winning in straight sets on an indoor carpet in Chicago in 1996.

"I think that match we had in 1991 brought women's tennis to a different level," Seles said. "At that point the young girls were watching, and they realised they had got to hit the ball harder. It's just very different.

"Everybody is hitting the ball harder. The serve has become much more of a weapon than, probably, five years ago. The girls are much bigger and stronger. You have to keep adjusting."

While Seles went on to defeat Martina Navratilova in the 1991 final, her first US Open championsip, and one of her nine Grand Slam singles titles, Capriati rued an opportunity missed.

"I was two points away from getting to the final," she said. "That match stuck with me for a long time; maybe it was like a little turning point. But now I really don't think about it. It's just so far in the past."

Asked how much she had changed since then, the 23-year-old Capriati said: "I'll talk about the tennis part. I'm bigger and stronger and just a little wiser out there on the court. Maybe I have a little more variety."

She admitted there had been times when she wondered if her career was over. "Then I thought, 'How ridiculous. You have the power in you. Just do it, if you want'." Easier said than done. Capriati's comebacks tended to be greeted with scepticism. This time is different, she said.

"Maybe I got sick of losing, sick of not reaching my full potential, that I still think I can reach. I have more determination. I'm feeling better about myself. Harold [Solomon], my coach, has helped me with that.

"I knew coming into this tournament that I was playing better. I had been working well. I felt I could have a chance to compete well."

Seles said: "It's just fantastic to see Jennifer come back, not just in tennis, but in life. She seems really happy. I really don't think her career went out of control because she lost that match [in '91]. She still won plenty of matches in '92 and was a top player. I don't think your life can spin out of control because of a tennis match."

Seles has tried to strike a balance between ambition and living her life since returning to the sport in 1995, 27 months after the stabbing. She would like to regain the No 1 ranking, but misses the guiding influence of her father and coach, Karolj, who died last year.

"I didn't get to be No 1 on my own," she said. "You need a support system.

"You would have to have a tremendous ego to think you can do this on your own. I know I have the commitment, and I'm in the process of finding a support team of people who share the same goals.

"For me, it's been a tough process, because obviously my dad passed away at a critical point in my career. I relied on him in every sense. Now suddenly I have to be the one making those decisions."

Seles is seeking a coach and fitness trainer to travel with her to tournaments. Her current coach, the American Jimmy Arias, plays on the ATP Senior Tour, and her former trainer, the Australian Gavin Hopper, is working with Mark Philippoussis.

Steffi Graf's retirement has left her coach, Heinz Gunthardt, without a prominent client. Gunthardt may be willing to combine his work as a television commentator with 30 weeks travelling as a coach.

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