There are still small cracks in Jennifer Capriati's game, tiny fissures of confidence and concentration that sometimes prevent her from winning the way she used to. But the surface of her life is much smoother than it used to be, and her tennis has improved with each gap she has filled.
Her doubles partner at this Australian Open is not so fortunate. Only 16 years old, Australian Jelena Dokic has spent the last three days watching her world splinter around her. She became an instant celebrity here when she upset Martina Hingis at Wimbledon last summer, but her life has been a disaster since Monday, when she was upset in the tournament's opening round by unknown clay-court specialist Rita Kuti Kis. Dokic disappeared for about four hours after the match, earning her a $2,500 fine from the WTA Tour, and when she finally showed up for her post-match news conference, she insulted Kuti Kis by saying "she was never a player and I guess she probably never will be."
Then on Wednesday, Dokic was quoted in a local paper claiming that tournament organizers around the world have been rigging draws against her, saying "they say they pull [the names out of a hat], but I don't think so." Dokic has since denied making the remarks, although afterward she and her father got into a physical confrontation with a television camera.
The entire episode has earned Dokic the wrath of several of the Tour's other players, including No. 2 seed Lindsay Davenport, who said that Dokic's comments are "some of the dumbest stuff I have ever heard."
"The senior players were laughing about it," Davenport said after her 6-4, 7-5 victory over Melissa Irvin on Wednesday. Davenport was then asked whether she was grateful for her conventional upbringing and that she had never found herself in a situation similar to Dokic's. "I say thank God I'm realistic and I'm intelligent," she said. "That's all I really think and that I'm down to earth and I don't have people laughing at what I say about myself."
Davenport may find Dokic's situation ridiculous, but Capriati, 23, can sympathize. A former teen star whose own life fell apart after theft charges and a stint in a drug rehabilitation clinic, she has finally gotten her tennis career back on track. On Wednesday night, she advanced to the third round in the singles draw with a 6-1, 4-6, 8-6 win over No. 14 seed Dominique Van Roost, a victory that will likely propel her back into the top-20 after this tournament. And later today, she was scheduled to take the court with Dokic to play doubles and perhaps administer a little advice and comfort.
"A lot of things are blown out of proportion and nobody is perfect," Capriati said when asked to try to explain Dokic's behavior. "When you're in the public eye, every word you say--sometimes it's taken overboard. She's young, and she's just got to experience it, unfortunately."
A few years ago, it seemed most unlikely that Capriati would be anyone's mentor, but at this tournament she has displayed a confidence and maturity that was missing as recently as last summer, when she had an emotional breakdown at the U.S. Open. She defeated Martina Hingis in an exhibition tournament in Hong Kong this winter, and she has looked strong here, although she still has some noticeable gaps in her game.
Against Van Roost, Capriati's groundstrokes were solid, but her serve often fell apart, hemorrhaging 10 double faults, including four in a row that cost her an important game in the third set. Capriati had been ahead a break and up, 40-0, at that point, but four double faults and an ensuing errant backhand put the set back on serve. Capriati seemed frustrated, but she kept enough of her composure to break Van Roost two more times. Van Roost's serve was also a disaster with 11 double faults. Capriati closed the match with an ace, of all things.
Joining Capriati in the third round will be Serena Williams, who looked stronger the longer she stayed on the court in a 7-5, 6-1 win over Nicole Pratt this morning. No. 7 seed Nicolas Lapentti and No. 10 seed Tommy Haas were not as fortunate, losing along with No. 9 seed Richard Krajicek and No. 8 seed Todd Martin.
Capriati will next play Chinese wild-card entrant Jing-Qian Yi, and while she will be the favorite to win the match, she isn't expecting the outing to garner a very high profile. She realizes the same cannot be said of her partnership with Dokic, but at least for now, she is enjoying being without any controversies of her own.
"I'm really not quite there yet where it's just kind of expected that I win matches," said Capriati, who was once ranked as high as No. 6 in the world. "Maybe when I start to get seeded or something, there will be a little more expectation there, but now I'm really going to enjoy the luxury of not having too much pressure, and if I get high-ranked or seeded or whatever, I'll try to have the same outlook."
When: Through Jan. 30.
Where: Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia.
TV: ESPN, ESPN2.
Yesterday's results: Men--Andre Agassi (1), United States, def. Sjeng Schalken, Netherlands, 7-5, 6-0, 6-3; Pete Sampras (3), United States, def. Mikael Tillstrom, Sweden, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6), 6-1; Fernando Vicente, Spain, def. Todd Martin (8), United States, 6-4, 2-6, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5; Nicolas Escude, France, def. Richard Krajicek (9), Netherlands, 2-6, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.
Women--Lindsay Davenport, (2), United States, def. Marissa Irvin, United States, 6-4, 7-5; Mary Pierce (4), France, def. Amelie Cocheteux, France, 6-2, 6-2; Sonya Jeyaseelan, Canada, def. Nathalie Tauziat (5), France, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4; Patty Schnyder, Switzerland, def. Amelie Mauresmo (7), France, 6-4, 6-4.