After a year of dipping her toes into the pool of competitive tennis, Jennifer Capriati made a major splash at the Australian Open this afternoon by defeating Patty Schnyder, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1, to advance to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in seven years. No longer attempting a comeback, the 23-year-old American is simply back.
"I don't think just some people, I think a lot of people wrote me off," Capriati said. "I'm human just like everyone else, and I'm not going to say that didn't bother me at all. It just gives me a little more satisfaction now."
The win put Capriati one step closer to a blockbuster semifinal matchup with Lindsay Davenport, who defeated Anna Kournikova, 6-4, 6-3, in a sometimes tense match that involved several breaks of serve. The match was the toughest challenge yet for Davenport, although she overcame Kournikova's advances with the calm consistency that has become her trademark.
Davenport next will play No. 9 seed Julie Halard-Decugis, but it will be hard not to look ahead to a possible match with the unseeded Capriati, who looked sharper than ever against Schnyder, the talented Swiss player who is also trying to rebound from a troubled past.
Schnyder reached the quarterfinals of the French Open and of the U.S. Open in 1998 but her 1999 season fell apart after she got involved with controversial coach Rainer Harnecker, who cut her off from many of her family and friends. Now with a new coach, Schnyder once again appears to be a threat this year, and in the second round here she upset No. 7 seed Amelie Mauresmo, one of the tournament favorites.
Schnyder put up a strong fight again today, forcing the match to a third set, and she even appeared ready to charge ahead when she earned a break point on Capriati in the set's third game. But Schnyder couldn't convert her advantage, dumping Capriati's second serve into the net, and it seemed to break her concentration.
Capriati went on to win the next five games to take the match, earning her a standing ovation from the crowd at Melbourne Park and a ticket to the tournament's second week, somewhere she hasn't been for a long time.
"Today really put me to the test, and I think that's the best I've played so far, especially in the third set," Capriati said. "I'm just trying to get to the point where every match I play on a high level."
Capriati's last quarterfinal appearance was at Wimbledon in 1993--in fact, she reached the quarterfinals of the French Open and Australian Open that year as well. But at the U.S. Open that year, Capriati was upset in the first round, and in the ensuing months she was engulfed in off-court problems, including an arrest on shoplifting charges and a stint in drug rehabilitation. Capriati left the tour entirely for two years and then made modest attempts to play for another three years, but last year was her first real charge at a comeback.
She won two minor tournament titles, in Strasbourg and Quebec City, and reached the fourth round at both the French Open and U.S. Open. Now that she has broken through to the quarterfinals, she'd like to keep going and will get her next chance Tuesday, when she plays either 1995 Australian Open champion Mary Pierce or Japan's Ai Sugiyama.
"I'm just really happy and relieved to get through," Capriati said. "It's a great satisfaction so far, but now I've got another match and then hopefully another match--hopefully three more. I'll let myself be happy after it's all over."
Capriati and Davenport are not the only American women on a roll here--after two rusty matches, Serena Williams looked sharp Saturday night in a 6-2, 7-6 (7-2) third-round win over Sabine Appelmans. But of the three, Davenport is the most stable and experienced, and the confidence she has gained from her two Grand Slam titles was certainly on display today.
Facing a clearly nervous Kournikova, Davenport won the match's first 10 points as she raced to a 3-0 lead. The ease of Davenport's advantage surprised the crowd and seemed to shock Kournikova, who snapped back into form in the next game by breaking Davenport's serve. She almost broke Davenport again later in the set--she had five break points in one game alone--but she could never quite overcome her early jitters, and Davenport marched on to take the set.
Kournikova continued to battle in the next set as the pair exchanged service breaks, but once Davenport took a 4-3 lead, Kournikova simply could not keep up. Davenport broke her again to finish the match, and Kournikova left another tournament still looking for her first title.
"Mentally I was trying to stay in points as long as I could, hoping she would make some errors," Davenport said. "Today was a big improvement from my last matches--I didn't make too many stupid errors and kept the pressure on.
"This was the first match where I felt, yeah, I could win the tournament now, but it only gets more difficult from here on in."