Capriati fights to preserve aura of comeback queen

French Open champion is severely tested on Centre Court by stubborn Russian on third leg of her quest for Grand Slam glory
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Jennifer Capriati endured enough dark days during her so-called lost years to put yesterday's patchy performance in the gathering gloom of a Centre Court afternoon into mature perspective. The No 4 seed, far below the form which saw her arrive at Wimbledon halfway towards the paradise of a Grand Slam, laboured to reach the last 16 by beating Tatiana Panova, of Russia, 6-4, 6-4.

Capriati, who remains on course to meet Serena Williams in an all-American quarter-final, gave a peculiarly distracted display. Irritable and heavy-legged, she looked at times as if she would rather have been anywhere else. True, there were occasional flashes of brilliance, but they were interspersed with numerous unforced errors, including a succession of double-faults.

At 5ft 3in, a full five inches shorter than Capriati, Panova is one of the shorter competitors in this year's tournament. But like a Welsh scrum-half, the 24-year-old Muscovite is as stubborn as she is stocky. She is also blessed with excellent technique and almost metronomic precision when returning serve, a combination which tested her opponent's mettle.

At first it found the Florida-based New Yorker wanting. To an audible murmur of disbelief from the crowd – many of whom clearly expect the comeback queen to be crowned as the women's champion a week today – Panova broke her to love in the first game of the match and soon moved into a 2-0 lead.

While Capriati broke back and quickly drew level, further evidence of her unsettled state came when she double-faulted three times in a row to allow Panova to go 4-3 up. She pulled herself together sufficiently to reel off three consecutive games to clinch the first set, but the problems persisted.

Panova broke twice in the first five games of the second set and at one stage led 4-1. Capriati's unease had manifested itself in a series of over-hit shots, but once again she dug deep into her reserves of resilience. After breaking back, she faced a particularly arduous seventh game, sprinkled with no fewer than seven deuces and one plainly poor line call against her. Yet she still managed to finish it with an ace – her first of the second set.

As in the opening set, Panova could not resist the momentum which Capriati was able to conjure. The passing shots that had fairly roared down either wing suddenly deserted the underdog. However, the relatively protracted nature of the contest, which lasted some 83 minutes, was testament to the victor's struggle with her own sluggishness as much as with her opponent.

Although Capriati hits the ball as hard as anyone in the tournament, her form is not yet that of a player aspiring to complete the third leg of the Grand Slam. But no one ever said that it was going to be easy for her to reinvent herself as an all-American athlete, and she can take heart from the fact that where she once buckled under the weight of expectations, parental and public, she now comes out fighting.

Afterwards, Capriati admitted she had been "lethargic" and had lacked concentration, citing both the frustration of waiting around for the rain to clear and the "cold and windy" conditions in mitigation. "I made a slow start but I turned it up in the end. Hopefully I'll get tougher because I know that it's going to get a lot harder from here on in."

Asked about her staccato service game, Capriati said: "In the end I found a rhythm, but in the beginning I wasn't concentrating. I feel really strong about the way I'm playing. though I have lapses, I always feel I can get it back."

Capriati may also be heartened by the fact that she has at least been put through her paces. Serena Williams, who needs to be tested in what is only her fifth tournament of the year, could hardly say the same after cruising to a 6-1, 6-2 win over the Swiss, Emmanuelle Gagliardi.

Earlier, in a meeting of two baseline-hugging seeds, Mag-dalena Maleeva, the No 12, proved too hard-hitting for Amy Frazier, the No 20, winning 6-3, 6-2. Five years ago, the Bulgarian's world ranking was the same as Capriati's is today – fourth – but then she too slipped off the WTA radar.

One of the circuit's more rounded individuals, a 26-year-old who takes an interest in politics, literature and music (as well as listing sewing among her hobbies), her absence was caused by a succession of injuries rather than problems of a psychological nature.

Now that she is fully fit again, Maleeva seems to be rediscovering her appetite for the fray. At Nice in February, for example, she defeated the first, third and eighth seeds, Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva and Justine Henin respectively, despite being unseeded herself. Yesterday's victory, accomplished with minimal fuss in just 57 minutes, brought her a place in the fourth round for the first time since 1996.

Conchita Martinez, the 1994 winner and a semi-finalist either side of that success, achieved what her fellow Spaniard, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, could not do earlier this week by defeating the American, Lilia Osterloh, by 6-2, 6-3 in an hour and seven minutes.

The No 19 seed now faces the 17-year-old Lina Krasnoroutskaya, of Russia, after she beat the Austrian Barbara Schwartz – who had herself vanquished the conqueror of Martina Hingis, Virginia Ruano Pascual – 6-3, 6-4.