Capriati is ready for Wimbledon

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The Independent Online

For new French Open champion Jennifer Capriati, two fresh challenges loom: Venus Williams and grass.

Capriati plans to spend a few days in Paris celebrating the title she won Saturday at Roland Garros, but later this week she'll begin preparations for the short grass–court season. And when Wimbledon begins June 25, Capriati will be the co–favorite, along with defending champion Williams.

As this year's Australian and French Open champion, Capriati is halfway to a rare Grand Slam sweep. Only three women and two men have won all four major events in the same year, most recently Steffi Graf in 1988.

"I feel comfortable on the grass," Capriati said. "I can't wait to get on it."

Her biggest hurdle at Wimbledon will be the 6–foot–1 Williams, the only top player Capriati has yet to beat this year. Their lone meeting in 2001 came in the final at the Ericsson Open, where Williams erased eight match points to win a sloppy but exciting three–setter.

Williams was the dominant player the second half of last year, winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and gold medals in singles and doubles at the Olympics.

But Capriati has been the top player the first half of this year. The hard–hitting Floridian resurrected a career once derailed by drugs and personal problems to fulfill the promise shown 11 years ago, when she reached the Roland Garros semifinals in her first major event at age 14.

While Williams was a first–round upset victim at this year's French, Capriati extended her Grand Slam winning streak to 14 matches. At Roland Garros she beat Serena Williams and top–ranked Martina Hingis, then outlasted emerging Belgian star Kim Clijsters in a marathon final, 1–6, 6–4, 12–10.

"I'm quite sure you'll win more Grand Slams this year," Clijsters told Capriati during the trophy ceremony.

At 25, Capriati is in the best shape of her career, which helped her survive two grueling weeks on clay to become the first American women's champion at the French since Chris Evert in 1986. The demands are different on grass, where short points and low bounces are the norm, but Capriati is confident she can adapt.

"I return well," she said. "I also can serve well – the grass will help there. And my net game is really improved."

Capriati had a 16–4 record in her first four appearances at Wimbledon, including a trip to the semifinals 10 years ago at age 15. Then came her hiatus from the women's tour. She lost in the second round in 1998 and 1999, then reached the fourth round last year.

"She has always done well there," said her younger brother and practice partner, Steven. "I think grass is her best surface, the way she hits the ball – so fast and so hard. On grass that works to her advantage because the ball just skids."

Capriati learned the game on hardcourts, the surface at the U.S. Open. She smiled when asked which Grand Slam event is the most difficult for her to win.

"Well, I haven't won every Grand Slam, so I don't know which one," she said coyly. "We'll have to see how it goes."

Capriati, whose career unraveled in the international spotlight, said she has learned how to deal with media scrutiny. That will be put to the test at Wimbledon, where the London tabloids may devote more attention to Capriati than to even Anna Kournikova.

"It's fine," Capriati said. "I'll keep it at arm's length. As long as I can practice and do what I have to do, it's fine. I'll kind of just ignore it, because I don't like being the big focus."

Perhaps if she reaches the Wimbledon final, she can share the spotlight with Williams.