Unknown sends Capriati packing early

Since 1968, she's the only women's defending champ to be ousted in first round

Australian Open

January 14, 2003|By Lisa Dillman | Lisa Dillman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MELBOURNE, Australia - Another period of darkness proved to be the undoing of two-time defending champion Jennifer Capriati at the Australian Open, resulting in one of the biggest upsets in tennis' open era.

No, it wasn't like the darkness of her well-chronicled slide during the lost years of her teens. This period was literal, not figurative.

Instead of resuming her demanding fitness regimen in the offseason, Capriati had eye surgery in November, then was in darkness for two weeks, and off the court even longer. She even considered skipping the Australian Open but felt an obligation to play as the two-time defending champion.

The operation left her half a step slow and turned her title defense into a rush job. Still, Capriati almost had enough power and will to get past 90th-ranked Marlene Weingartner of Germany yesterday at Melbourne Park, leading 6-2, 3-0 and later coming within two points of victory.

Perhaps inevitably, though, the cracks couldn't remain papered over and Capriati slowly unraveled, double-faulting 10 times.

Weingartner, who squandered seven break points in the third set, kept pushing and gritting her teeth, and finally made Australian Open history, beating the third-seeded Capriati, 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, in the first round in 1 hour, 49 minutes.

"This is special," Weingartner said. "I've never played on a center court before in a Grand Slam. I hope I will play a few more matches there."

Capriati's ouster came on a day when Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport won, as did three-time winner Andre Agassi. Top-ranked Serena Williams and men's No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt were scheduled to play later today.

Kim Clijsters - who beat both Williams sisters two months ago - surged into the second round with a 62-minute, 6-2, 6-1 victory over American Samantha Reeves.

In other women's matches, No. 10 Chanda Rubin overcame Hungarian Melinda Czink, 6-4, 7-5; Mary Pierce, winner of the 1995 Australian Open and 2000 French, beat Austria's Patricia Wartusch, 6-1, 6-4; and American Amy Frazier, playing in her 56th Grand Slam tournament, needed only 43 minutes to oust Spain's Conchita Martinez Granados.

On the men's side, Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian moved quickly into the second round when France's Jerome Golmard quit after three sets with a back injury.

Nalbandian led 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 before the withdrawal by Golmard.

"I felt really good in the second and third sets," said Nalbandian, who had only three unforced errors in the third.

He advanced 35 places in the rankings last year, to No. 12, after reaching the Wimbledon final in his first professional grass-court tournament. Hewitt beat him easily for the trophy.

"Before Wimbledon, nobody knew me. After, everybody watches me," said the 21-year-old Argentinian, who is seeded 10th here.

No. 13 Fernando Gonzalez, who moved up 117 places in the rankings last year, advanced with a 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over France's Julien Varlet.

Since the Open era started in 1968, the defending women's champion had not lost in the first round here. It happened at Wimbledon in 1994 when Steffi Graf lost in the first round to Lori McNeil. But McNeil was a known quantity, having made the semifinals at the 1987 U.S. Open.

Weingartner, though an excellent junior player, has gone past the second round only twice in 16 Grand Slams, both times in Melbourne. The slight, hard-hitting German carved out history, though, needing a single match point, winning when Capriati netted a forehand after a baseline rally.

"I think I deserved it," Wein- gartner said. "I played really well, and I just went for it."

An emotionally deflated Capriati was the loser at Melbourne Park for the first time since the 2000 semifinals, ending a 14-match winning streak.

"I came here as a defending champion and maybe it didn't feel like I was at my best, but I put myself on the line and took that risk," Capriati said. "I'm not trying to make excuses, that's for sure. But I have to say it had a lot to do with my preparation for coming here."

The eye procedure was to clear up clouding vision that was worsening last year. Several years ago, she had laser surgery, then last summer she complained of poor night vision.

Here, her eyes were wide open again, but the lack of training hurt her. It's not often, for instance, that Capriati is winded enough to hold up her hand to delay play.

"[The eyes] felt OK out there," said Capriati, who has not won a tournament since last year's Australian Open. "I would have to say, the recovery time wasn't enough, and I feel like I just didn't give myself enough chance to fully prepare.

"Probably if I wasn't the defending champion, I wouldn't have showed up."

Lisa Dillman is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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