Even in her Comeback Kid mode, Jennifer Capriati had rarely covered terrain quite so perilous as that which she negotiated yesterday on the Centre Court on the way to a 6-7, 7-5, 6-3 quarter-final victory over Serena Williams.
The whole experience, in a tennis sense at least, was a microcosm of her turbulent life in the sport she is now threatening to dominate. She made visits to heaven and hell before emerging triumphant yet again.
But even as you marvelled at the sturdiness of the Capriati resurrection, it was impossible not to feel a pang of sympathy for the victim of her latest example of strength through vigorous self-renewal.
For a second time in a year Williams, a marvellously gifted tennis player who yesterday mingled power and vulnerability in such a heart-rending mixture even her Svengali father Richard was forced to leave the arena, finished up in tears after Wimbledon defeat. Last year she buckled under questioning about whether family pressure had affected her performance in the semi-final defeat by her sister and eventual champion Venus. Yesterday she crumbled again when discussing the illness which she claimed had brought her down from an apparently untouchable winning position.
One moment Serena was a goddess of the game, sending down an ace to to go 5-3 in the second set, having won the first, and blasting her her way to within two points of victory on Capriati's serve. The next she was scurrying off the court to the toilet, 4-0 down in the final set and lacking the confidence to play even the most basic of returns. She rallied after the break, but only briefly, and Capriati, benefiting from her own medical breaks, when a painful hip was massaged both in the treatment room and at courtside, finally took hold of the match.
Later she was bitingly sceptical of Williams' explanation for her dizzying descent into defeat, saying, "I had no idea until she took the bathroom break. Basically, I don't know, every time I play her I'm pretty much used to something going on there. She usually takes the time, you know, before I serve. I mean, she's just like a slow player in between. But I don't think anything was wrong with her until that point. She had been playing, well, so... "
Capriati's doubts are not without fuel, a fact underlined by the heavy questioning Williams faced from the American media. One question set the inquisitorial mood: "You said the other day that at the French it was an impostor out there in you place. Who was out there today and what physical struggles did you have to go through?"
Williams sucked in her breath, and her brow furrowed. "Well, I was definitely playing out there. But in the end I think I lost the match because Jennifer just picked up her game and played a bit better. For four days now, I've been struggling. Last Friday I got the sickness. I haven't really been able to eat since, just a little pasta, I have just been going on emotion. I have a gastro viral infection, I've been to the doctor twice, and have been taking a lot of Pepto-Bismol, Imodium, things like that. I nearly pulled out of the tournament before playing Magdalena Maleeva in the previous round. I said: 'I don't know if I can do it'."
The statement was straightforward enough, of course, but the scepticism is thin around Serena Williams – and perhaps inevitably.
There were moments yesterday when she simply swept away the challenge of the formidable Capriati. She opened with an ace, and there were times when her shots had a depth and a power which spoke of a potential to beat anyone she faced.
But then Capriati isn't anyone. She is putting together a body of work which would be stunning by any standards, and has to be multiplied in its value when set against the perils she survived in a vertiginous descent from the high ground of an Olympic gold medal in 1992.
After the triumph over Williams, the long, hard recovery from an apparently hopeless position, she was once again radiant.
"I just hung in again," she said. "At the end of the second set I was so close to losing it, and I just kept saying to myself: 'Try to at least hold on to your serve and make her serve it out'. Then, at 5-4, I just gave it everything I got. All the games were so close up to that point. So many games were going to deuce. So the closer it got, the more I had to concentrate. I thought to myself: 'Bear down, you've got to go for it now, this is your last chance'."
The bearing down was spectacular as anything so far achieved by Capriati in a career comeback which now includes the Australian and French Opens – and is just two matches away from a third straight Grand Slam triumph here at Wimbledon. She said: "I'm not thinking about the Grand Slam because that would be asking for trouble. I have more obstacles to face here, and I don't want to slip out of concentration. Today was close, but I got through it. I just want to build on that."
It is the mantra of a winner of course, and so far Capriati has maintained such an aura; under severe fire at times, no doubt, but she has maintained the sense of someone who knows that the finishing line is both attainable and in sight.
Such a prospect is forlornly remote for the talented player she ultimately whipped yesterday. Contrast, for example, the sad musings of Serena Williams at the moment when she couldn't hold back the tears. Shortly after guessing that she might be a hypochondriac – a condition she thought, vaguely, might be one in which you simply pick up stray illnesses – she added: "I simply think I have bad luck. I worked really hard after the French championships, only to have this setback. It was pretty disappointing, as you can see."
You could see the tears and the confusion and they were in the harshest contrast to the glow of Jennifer Capriati. It was a hard day, indeed, for the Centre Court girls.Reuse content