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Calm at center of the storm

Jennifer Capriati has stayed focused on tennis, fitness and family on her way to the top.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 9, 2001

PARIS -- There have been so many things written, so many things said and assumed and intimated about Jennifer Capriati in her 25 years that nothing surprises her anymore. Still, she was amused Friday afternoon when the local media reported that an injury was going to keep her from playing in today's French Open final.

[AP photo]
KUERTEN ADVANCES: Defending champion Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten jubilates after defeating Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero in their semifinal match of the French Tennis Open at the Roland Garros stadium Friday. Kuerten won 6-4, 6-4, 6-3.
"Whatever," she said, smiling, handing a bag of ice to a friend as she dismissed any concern over the brief flash of tendinitis that flickered through her right knee during her semifinal trouncing of Martina Hingis on Thursday. The rumors were, she said, ridiculous. Besides, she had bigger problems, asking, "Has anyone seen my mother?"

And there it was.

Capriati was standing in the middle of the players' lounge, on the verge of winning her second straight Grand Slam title, something that could not only cement her as one of the greatest comeback stories in sports but send her into the frenzy of Wimbledon a step closer to becoming only the fourth woman to win all four of tennis' major tournaments in the same year. Gossip swirled around her. Sponsors were angling to get a piece of her.

Yet with less than 24 hours to go before a match that could turn her entire world upside down again, this was about the most pressing thing the Saddlebrook resident was worried about: her mother's plans to get back to their hotel. Oh, and when she was going to get a massage.

"She's so calm," said the subject of the search, Denise Capriati. "She knows what she can handle now. She's really laid back. It's great. As a mother, well, it's just great to see."

Capriati's story has become a favorite tale for others as well. Fellow players, WTA Tour officials and even Belgian Kim Clijsters, who faces Capriati today, have said they are impressed with not only what Capriati has accomplished in the last six months but also with the serene way she has accomplished it.

Clijsters had no intention of letting her admiration get in the way of her competitive nature -- the gritty teenager has looked sharp on the way to her first career Grand Slam final -- yet she admitted she has a much more shallow well of experience to draw upon than Capriati.

"In my eyes, it looks like she has a lot of confidence. She is really at the peak of her game," said Clijsters, who celebrated her 18th birthday Friday morning with a practice session and a discussion of her opponent. "I really take my hat off to the way she has managed to come back. She and her family are really nice people."

The preparations for today's match mark a big leap for Clijsters and Capriati, who a year ago exited Roland Garros quickly after first-round losses. Clijsters fell to Japan's Ai Sugiyama and Capriati to Italy's Fabiola Zuluaga; their ascension to the final this time marks the first such dual turnaround in the history of women's Grand Slam tennis.

Of course, for Capriati, the turnaround extends much further, starting with her explosion onto the public consciousness after becoming, at Roland Garros at the age of 14, the youngest ever Grand Slam semifinalist.

Back then, Capriati explained, "I just remember that it came very easily," but after her promising career imploded in a haze of teenage rebellion and drug problems, the climb back was more difficult.

She made several stops and starts over the last few years, and many of her efforts were only moderately rewarded.

In January, she was able to put together a streak of solid matches at the Australian Open, and the result was spectacular.

She won the title, besting the top-seeded Hingis, and has been on a roll since, winning a title at Charleston last month and looking sharp since arriving in Paris, pounding groundstrokes with rattling authority.

"I feel strong here," Capriati said. "Really, it's a way I can kind of forget about everything else. I mean, I work too hard to really let anything distract me, to just get in the way of my tennis and not playing well."

That, in the end, may be one of the secrets to her inner peace.

After seeing her fitness wax and wane last year, she has been solidly dedicated this spring. She has been working out so regularly that she has surpassed even younger brother Steven, a college player at Arizona who played at South Florida before transferring.

During a recent set of drills in Monte Carlo, Steven was so winded he had to stop after 20 minutes, while Jennifer kept going for 20 minutes more.

"She just started laughing at me," Steven recounted, describing the same kind of smile his older sister was flashing Friday about the French news reports.

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