PARIS — Whether it started with fact, or if it was pure fiction, word spread quickly through Roland Garros on Friday that fourth-seeded Jennifer Capriati was questionable for today's French Open final against No. 12 Kim Clijsters of Belgium.
Maybe this occurred because the much-anticipated semifinal between Juan Carlos Ferrero and Gustavo Kuerten was sorely lacking in suspense.
There were clues pointing to fiction. Capriati's mother, Denise, was spotted chatting on a cellular phone and seemed serene, certainly untroubled by the specter of a knee injury.
There were clues pointing to fact. Capriati was spotted holding a bag of ice.
Eventually, the rumors found their way to the players' lounge. Capriati was talking with a friend about former President Clinton's visit. She walked without a limp and reported the knee was fine. In Thursday's semifinal victory over Martina Hingis, Capriati needed an injury timeout and treatment for tendinitis of her right knee.
She seemed greatly amused by Friday's fuss.
"I heard I'm not playing," Capriati said, laughing. "I'll be there."
Her assertion ended the 15-minute crisis, and made it safe to return to the chronicling of Capriati's initial rise, sharp fall into the abyss and remarkable renaissance. She came to Paris as a 14-year-old in 1990, camera crews recording every move, and reached the semifinals in her Grand Slam debut.
From 1994 to 1999, Capriati did not win a match at the French Open, and most years she didn't even play, after highly publicized incidents of substance abuse and an arrest for shoplifting.
Today, she will try to become the first tennis player in nine years to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam. Only three women have won tennis' Grand Slam--Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988). In 1992, Monica Seles won the Australian Open and French Open before losing in the final at Wimbledon.
Capriati had to get through Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Hingis to win in Australia, which provided the payoff, showing her the results of hard work and dedication, on and off the court.
In Melbourne, it was almost a solo tour. Her father and coach, Stefano, was the only family member to see her win the title. Denise was home in Florida and Jennifer's younger brother, Steven, was at school at the University of Arizona.
"I was in a bar watching with friends--it was on at 9 p.m.," Steven said. "I always knew she had confidence, but she's backing it up with the air of invincibility."
Said Denise: "The phone was ringing off the hook every time she won a game."
When Capriati said she felt like shouting after her semifinal victory over Hingis on Thursday, the emotion came from the idea that this showed Australia was no fluke. Also, it meant something special that her entire family has been able to watch her progress in Paris.
Steven has been hitting with her and gamely tried to keep up with her in conditioning drills, even when they were in Monte Carlo for an awards ceremony last month.
"I needed to stop after 20 minutes," he said. "And she went another 20. She's fit like a machine."
He hopes they can play mixed doubles at the U.S. Open.
"With her return . . . I think we could play well together," he said.
He said she has been able to stay low-key despite the recent rush of success. The mistakes of the past helped her deal with the present, as have the 11 years of maturity.
"You need to be humble, that's what she did to fight through all the criticism," he said. "That's what I'm most proud of her, that she was able to withstand that and get back to the top."
Capriati's opponent in today's final, Clijsters, attracted attention because of her early success when she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon two years ago at 16. But it was nothing close to the expectations and pressure Capriati faced as a teen. The first Belgian to reach a Grand Slam final, Clijsters turned 18 on Friday, but she acts more like she is in her 20s.
"I have to enjoy this because maybe it's the last time I get this far in a Grand Slam final," she said.
So, perhaps the theme of this French Open final should be hard-hitting baseliners with their feet on the ground . . . or on the red clay. Steven Capriati insisted his older sister would remain the same, even after finding Grand Slam success before it was too late.
"She'd be perfectly content to go home, watch TV and play with the dogs," he said. "That would make her as happy as a million-dollar shopping spree in Paris."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Jennifer Capriati and Kim Clijsters, today's French Open women's singles finalists, have met once:
Winner: Capriati, 7-5, 6-3