Leaving past behind, Capriati moves ahead

Former teen phenom advances to round of 16

No. 2 Davenport up next

French Open

May 30, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARIS -- She is not the 14-year-old who came within two matches of winning the 1990 French Open in her Grand Slam debut, charming the world with her ground strokes and precocious kid-speak, referring to Napoleon as that "little dead dude."

Nor is she the troubled, angst-ridden teen-ager who had brushes with the law amid a cloud of drug use. Of course, these days, that plot would be practically lighthearted on an episode of "Dawson's Creek."

Years later, 23-year-old Jennifer Capriati is beyond those snapshots. Trying to convince skeptics with her words is one thing, so she has moved on to what she knows best hitting a tennis ball.

"The only way I can really talk is with my racket because it's like any other thing I do or say, it always get's twisted around," Capriati said. "So really the best way for me to talk is through my racket."

The message?

Capriati reached the final 16 at the French Open yesterday, defeating Silvia Farina of Italy, 6-2, 4-0 (retired). The third-round match abruptly ended after 56 minutes when Farina defaulted because of an injured left leg. Farina, who suffered the injury earlier in training, had the thigh wrapped and was also hampered by a sore ankle.

Today, Capriati will play second seed Lindsay Davenport in the fourth round. Davenport, on a seven-match winning streak, survived a difficult first set in her 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 victory against Fabiola Zuluaga of Colombia.

One seeded player on the women's side lost, as Anna Kournikova of Russia defeated 11th seed Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0. There is a history of dislike between Kournikova and Schnyder, dating to more than a year ago. Schnyder has said she cannot play against Kournikova.

"I've told you I have a problem [with her]," she said. "I think that's enough. You can all see how I played, so you can write about that."

Kournikova also reached the fourth round here last year, and in her path this time in the round of 16 is five-time champion Steffi Graf.

But the matchup between Davenport and Capriati is the most anticipated, a chance to gauge the progress of Capriati's latest comeback.

Capriati has played Davenport twice, beating her at Sydney in 1997 and losing to her at Oklahoma City later that year. But this time she is on an eight-match winning streak, coming off a tournament victory last weekend at Strasbourg, France.

This is the first time she has gone past the second round of a Grand Slam event since reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1993.

"In the future, the near future, my ambitions are maybe going to get higher, stronger," said Capriati, who is ranked 53rd.

"Right now, I'm just thinking about the first few rounds. This is quite an accomplishment for me, just being in the round of 16."

Behind Capriati's newfound self-belief is her association with coach and former tour player Harold Solomon. Capriati hired him shortly before the Lipton tournament in March, and he has been impressed with her form and maturity.

"It's not rocket science out here. She's practiced hard almost every single day," he said. "I think you can tell she's matured a lot as a person, has been very introspective over the past year. She's much more self-assured.

"I think if you asked her, she'd say she felt this would be her last shot at doing this thing. And she wants to make sure she gives it her best shot."

Capriati's father, Stefano, had called Solomon, but the coach wanted to hear from Jennifer, to make certain she was serious about the comeback and willing to work hard.

"I knew physically, game-wise, she could do it," he said. "Whether she could get it together, I really didn't have any idea. I had doubts. I didn't get sold on the thing until the night I talked to her on the phone for two hours. I told my wife, `Maybe I'm crazy, but I believe everything she told me and I think she's ready to do this.' "

He thinks she is still about 15 percent away from finding her top physical form on the court, and her serve needs to pick up quite a bit more. But for a relatively brief partnership, Capriati seems far ahead of schedule, no matter what she does against Davenport today.

"We talked about re-establishing her presence on the court so that people can sense this is a solid figure out there to get the job done," Solomon said. "I think that's how she was when she was 14, 15, and 16. She had this aura, `I'm going to go out there and kick your butt.' In the past few years, unfortunately, people look at her the other way.

"This whole trip to Europe wasn't about winning matches. For her, it was to establish a presence on the court again. For the most part, she has done a good job of doing that."

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