So many dark, ugly things have stopped Jennifer Capriati from playing tennis over the years that when she was eliminated in the semifinals of the Australian Open today by nothing more sinister than the heavy, darting shots of fellow American Lindsay Davenport, it was somewhat of a victory, even in defeat.

While Davenport's 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) win propelled her to Saturday's final against top-seeded Martina Hingis, who defeated Conchita Martinez, 6-3, 6-2, in the other semifinal, Capriati's overall success at this tournament should give a major boost to the 23-year-old, who was playing her first semifinal since 1991. Only 15 years old then, she had no idea that it would take so long--and be so hard--to come back. But after first working through the psychological damage caused by a spate of off-court problems and then through the rust that had gathered over her long layoff, Capriati finally seems to be ready to rejoin the tennis elite.

"She has gone through so much, and I think that it's great she could come back--I know she will be around for many more years and have many more chances," Davenport said. "I'm pretty lucky to get through in two sets, and I'll have to work on being really aggressive in my next match."

Both players were dealing with nagging injuries, but it was Davenport who was able to work out her aches and pains first by hitting harder, serving better and placing her shots with such accuracy that even when Capriati knew where the ball was going, she couldn't hit it. By the time she got a handle on Davenport's pace, Davenport had claimed the first set.

Things appeared to be going in the same direction at the start of the second set when Davenport quickly racked up an early break, although Capriati, whose forehands had been solid throughout the match, started turning her returns into winners. When she broke Davenport back to even the set at 1, it seemed to spin Davenport into a funk and empower Capriati, who then began matching Davenport's powerful strokes with brawn of her own.

The pair exchanged service breaks over the next few games, and Capriati was able to foil Davenport's attempt to serve out the match at 5-4, eventually forcing the set to a tiebreaker. But in the end, Capriati could not keep up with Davenport's strokes and strength, finishing the match by slapping a forehand into the net.

"Lindsay started off playing really well and I was just a little slow--she jumped all over me," Capriati said. "By the time I really started getting into it, it was just too late."

Capriati will head home to Florida, while No. 2 seed Davenport heads back to the courts to face Hingis--twice. The two were scheduled to play each other in a doubles match later today, then on Saturday they will fight for the singles title. Neither has dropped a set here, and while Davenport has the better recent record, going 3-0 against Hingis last year, Hingis is the three-time defending champion and considers the courts at Melbourne Park "like my backyard."

She certainly looked like she was playing a practice match today against Martinez, finishing off the No. 10 seed in an hour.

"Conchita tries to break your rhythm, but I told myself not to step back, and keep the pressure on her," Hingis said. She added that facing Davenport will be much different, but that "this is the dream final, so I'm going to try to give it my best shot."

After losing to Davenport, Capriati was picking her countrywoman to upset Hingis, although she is hoping to get into a position to win a title herself by the time the next Grand Slam rolls around. With a month of practice ahead of her before playing her next tournament, in Scottsdale, Ariz., she said she is heading to the weight room to work on her strength and back to the tennis court to work on her strokes.

But unlike in the past, she won't have to do much to build up her confidence--the run here has taken care of that.

"She's disappointed about today, which is good, because that means she's made it back to the top, but in general, she's happy--she's really happy," Capriati's mother, Denise, said. "She's worked hard, and she's shown she can compete."

Australian Open

When: Through Sunday.

Where: Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia.


Yesterday's results: Men--Yevgeny Kafelnikov (2), Russia, def. Younes El Aynaoui, Morocco, 6-0, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4); Magnus Norman (12), Sweden, def. Nicolas Kiefer (4), Germany, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (7-4).

Women--Lindsay Davenport (2), United States, def. Jennifer Capriati, United States, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4); Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, def. Conchita Martinez (10), Spain, 6-3, 6-2.