Capriati serves up feast fit for gods

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Half an hour into her 26th birthday yesterday, Jennifer Capriati was talking about tennis. But not out of choice. The world No 1 would prefer to have been sleeping, getting as much rest as possible before preparing to play Serena Williams at noon today in the women's singles final here at the Nasdaq-100 Open.

Capriati was delayed by two of the most exciting matches ever seen here, the second being her magnificent contest against Monica Seles. This was settled in Capriati's favour, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, after two hours and 10 minutes, but not before she had saved two match points. Before that, 14,000 spectators had been spellbound by the power of shot and fleet of foot of Lleyton Hewitt, the men's world No 1, and Marat Safin in a quarter-final won by Hewitt, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6, after two hours and 44 minutes.

Asked if she had been inspired by the men's match, Capriati said: "No, not at all. I was more pissed off that they were going three sets, because I wanted to get on the court." If there can be too much of a good thing, Thursday night's spectators were over-fed, although, as Capriati pointed out: "Not even the whole crowd was there to witness our match."

Those who left the stadium missed a second main course, a match after which, as Capriati said, "It was tough that there had to be a loser; the gods were with me tonight." That seemed certainly to be the case at 5-6 in the final set, when Capriati twice cut loose with her powerful forehand, driving the ball across the court and inside the line as Seles was on the verge of victory. Having erased the two match points, Capriati went on to win the tie-beak, 7-4.

Capriati is an authority on the nerve-jangling subject of saving and missing match points. Martina Hingis would have dethroned her as the Australian Open champion but for Capriati's resolve with four match points against her name in the final.

The stakes here may not be as high as they were in Melbourne, but Capriati applied the same simple logic to the crisis. "On those match points, there's no time to think. And I feel like I really have to make it. So I do." Capriati does not always hit the target, however, when it comes to converting match points. The most glaring example was in the final here last year, when Capriati lost to Venus Williams, Serena's older sister. Capriati failed to nail any of eight match points. "Maybe I felt I had to go for too much," she said. Williams secured victory on her fourth match point to win a third set tie-break, 7-4.

That was bizarre final. There were 18 breaks of serve, 10 by Williams. The Wimbledon champion committed 71 of the 124 unforced errors, although Capriati double-faulted 16 times to Williams' 11. Spectators will be hoping to see more quality and less ineptitude when Capriati plays Serena Williams today.

Capriati has won four of their seven previous matches, and two of those victories were in this tournament. Williams has won their last two matches, in the final in Toronto last year and the final in Scottsdale last month, Williams' first tournament after six weeks recovering from an injured right ankle. Williams is undoubtedly the player in form, having pounded her way past her sister after overwhelming Hingis.

"Hopefully, I'll come out and not be drained and flat-footed," Capriati said. "I've had some really tough matches. In a way, playing Serena is similar to Monica, but I feel I have a tougher time against Monica. If Serena's having an incredible on day, then it's hard. But Monica keeps the pressure on. With Serena, if you can get the ball back, she can make mistakes." Tim Henman may be nursing a ricked neck after failing to look where he was going on his way to an outside court, but the news is not all bad for the British No 1. Although he had to retire after losing the first set of his fourth-round match against Roger Federer, Safin's loss to Hewitt means Henman will rise two places to No 5 in the ATP tournament entry system next Monday.