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Capriati can't contain joy

The Australian Open champ beats No. 1 Martina Hingis 6-4, 6-3 at the French to advance to her 2nd straight Slam final.

[AP photo]
"I just want to scream at the top of my lungs," said Jennifer Capriati after her win. "I'm just like really excited."

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 8, 2001

PARIS -- A triumphant Jennifer Capriati pumped a fist, bowed to the crowd and blew a kiss to her family. Then, as a steady rain fell, she grabbed her tennis bag and jogged off the court, her radiant grin a welcome contrast to the gloomy weather.

"That smile, I love that smile," her mother, Denise, said. "It's awesome."

An hour after beating Martina Hingis 6-4, 6-3 Thursday in the French Open semifinals, Capriati was smiling still.

"I just want to scream at the top of my lungs," she said. "I'm just like really excited."

There has been plenty to shout about this year for Capriati. The former child prodigy and troubled teen from Saddlebrook won headlines and hearts in January with a surprising run to her first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.

That achievement was hailed as the culmination of her comeback, but she keeps winning. And in her first French Open final Saturday against 18-year-old Kim Clijsters, Capriati, 25, will be a heavy favorite.

"Right now I'd say she's the most consistent, hottest player on the tour," Hingis said.

"I'm flattered by that," Capriati said when told of Hingis' remark. "But I'm not ranked No. 1. So I can't say I'm No. 1."

Capriati was touted as a future French Open champion 11 years ago when she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros as a 14-year-old in her first major. She lost that match to Monica Seles and hadn't been back to the semis until Thursday.

"I never knew if it would ever come again," she said. "It wasn't looking that way a few years ago. . . . It's like I've been reincarnated."

After Capriati's latest win, her parents and younger brother happily accepted congratulations in the players lounge and marveled at her resurgence. She is 13-0 in Grand Slam matches this year.

"We've gone through so much," Denise Capriati said. "But she has proven that if you believe in yourself, work hard and dig deep, you can accomplish anything."

While the fourth-seeded Capriati continues her climb, Hingis finds her fortunes fading. At 20, she clings to the No. 1 ranking because she is consistent in second-tier events, but she hasn't won a major title since the 1999 Australian Open.

Hingis was glum after coming up short again at Roland Garros, the only major she hasn't won.

"Mentally, I've always been like somewhere out in the clouds sometimes before this tournament," she said.

Her finesse has become no match for the muscle of the other top players -- the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Capriati. Hingis is 0-3 this year against Capriati, including the Australian Open final, and power was the difference Thursday even on the sport's slowest surface, clay.

By the fifth game, as Capriati raced to a 4-1 lead, Hingis' frustration was audible. She shrieked in dismay after dumping a backhand into the net. Scrambling to stay in rallies, Hingis often could muster only looping forehands and slice backhands, and Capriati answered with line drives.

"She overwhelmed me at times," Hingis said.

At the net, Hingis fared better, but it was difficult to find chances to charge in the face of Capriati's baseline barrage.

"When I needed to dictate the points, I would up the pressure," Capriati said. "I would just get the short ball and put it away. I guess she just couldn't hang in there with it. She has some weaknesses, and you have to attack those weaknesses."

The French fans were firmly behind Capriati, partly because of her inspiring career comeback and partly because they remember Hingis' tantrum while losing the 1999 final. The crowd jeered several times when Hingis questioned a line call or tossed her racket in frustration.

For Capriati, there were only cheers -- and murmurs of concern when she twice received treatment from a trainer. She said tendinitis in her right knee has bothered her for a couple of weeks and flared up briefly, and she looked a step slower as Hingis won three consecutive games to even the first set at 4.

Serving in the next game, Capriati started moving better and erased two break points with rare trips to the net. She held, then broke in the next game with help from a Hingis double fault to take the set.

Hingis blew 40-0 leads in consecutive games in the second set to give Capriati a 5-3 lead.

And though Capriati struggled to close out her quarterfinal win over Serena Williams, there was no wavering this time. She won the final seven points, smacking four solid serves in the last game for the victory.

Uncommonly humble, Hingis did not even try to conjure up an excuse. "She just played too good," Hingis said.

Clijsters, seeded 12th, earlier became the first Belgian to reach a Grand Slam final by beating compatriot Justine Henin 2-6, 7-5, 6-3.

At one point, Henin, 19, was ahead 4-2 in the second set, ready to pounce on her place in the final. But once Clijsters saved three break points in the seventh game, Henin came undone. "I was still leading 4-3, one break ahead, but mentally I was becoming weak," she said.

Saturday, Clijsters, who turns 18 today, will fill Capriati's former role: carefree teen prodigy with nothing to lose. But Capriati is quite content with her new role: the player to beat in women's tennis.

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