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Capriati Melts Down Hingis to Take Title

Australian Open: The American overcomes four match points and a 4-0 second-set deficit to win in three sets.

January 26, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MELBOURNE, Australia — It took the greatest moments, along with the worst, from a certain Grand Slam tournament in France, to produce a historic final between Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis.

Capriati and Hingis were influenced by their Paris past in the Australian Open. It was as though the ingredients for this final came from France and were mixed in a blender. And out came a classic as the defending champion and top-seeded Capriati survived four match points and a 4-0 deficit in the second set, defeating No. 3 Hingis, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2, in 2 hours 10 minutes on a day when temperatures neared 100 degrees in a rematch of last year's women's final.

It was the first time in 46 years in a final that a female player survived a match point and won in Australia. In 1956, Mary Carter defeated Thelma Long after holding match point. The last time it happened in the final of any Slam for women came in 1962 when Margaret Court came back to beat Lesley Turner in Paris.

Here, the foundation for a memorable encounter seemed to come from two French Open finals. Last year, Capriati did not play well in the beginning and dug deep, finding a new level of strength, beating Kim Clijsters, 12-10, in the third set.

As for Hingis, this was a reminder of her close call in the 1999 French Open final. She was three points from winning against Steffi Graf, and served for the match before unraveling in a petulant mess. Until today, that was as close as she had come to winning a Grand Slam since her Australian Open title in 1999.

Instead of a complete mental meltdown, Hingis had a physical one today. She needed an injury timeout in the third set, suffering from cramps and heat exhaustion, winning only three points in the final three games after the treatment.

Capriati didn't quite know how she won her third Grand Slam title, her first since the French Open in June. "I couldn't believe finally that I won," she said. "Maybe I thought the third set would be a lot harder. I was cruising in the third set because Martina didn't feel well. The first one was great, but to come back and win like this, I don't know what's better."

Raw emotions were running through the 21-year-old Hingis, who was appearing in her sixth consecutive Australian Open final.

"I think I'm overwhelmed with feelings," she said. "Jennifer was too good today. Maybe if we had the Heineken beer in the cooler, it would help me to make the final point.

"I don't know whether to be happy or to cry. I think I've got to choose. I just have to look forward."

Capriati, 25, made a joke about the beer during the on-court trophy ceremony.

"I didn't know if I was going to make it. Actually I was drinking Heineken. You just didn't know it," she said, laughing. "Martina, you are a great champion. It's going to take a while to get to your status, being here six times. It's a tremendous effort. I don't know how I won."

It was easier for her to describe how she got out of trouble. Capriati simply refused to play it safe on the match points against her. The first one came at 5-3 in the second set with Hingis serving for it. Capriati smacked a hard cross-court backhand winner on the match point and escaped with the game when Hingis double-faulted on break point.

The next one came in the 12th game, with Capriati serving. She survived by crushing a hard forehand, which drew an error from Hingis. The third one came in that same game when Hingis hit a forehand passing shot long off a Capriati volley.

Finally, Hingis' fourth match point came during a tense rally in the tiebreaker when Hingis hit a backhand long. That made it 7-7 in the tiebreaker, and Capriati forced the third set when Hingis missed a volley and hit a backhand wide.

The heat and the missed four match points caused Hingis to erupt. She threw her racket to the side of the court, getting pretty decent distance with the toss.

"I kept fighting on those match points I was down," Capriati said. "I went for it. I don't know why I didn't play like that when I was ahead. The heat was incredible. You saw the way we were sitting down between points. I got a second wind, third wind, fourth wind. I don't know how many winds I had."

Because the temperature was close to 100, the extreme heat policy rule was invoked and the players took a 10-minute break after the second set. Hingis changed clothes. Capriati did not, saying: "I forgot to bring another outfit."

After she finished with such a flourish, her celebration was a lot like last year in Melbourne. Capriati clasped hands with her father Stefano and spoke on the cell phone with her brother Steven, who was home. This time, her mother, Denise, was able to share in the Australian victory.

"She was very brave," Stefano said. "Without a heart, she couldn't go through this match."

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