Venus, Capriati have won past 5 Slams
Venus, Capriati have won past 5 Slams
By Greg Garber
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- There was a pale, fleeting moment when it looked like Jennifer Capriati might climb back into her match with Venus Williams last Friday night. It was 1-all in a second-set tiebreaker and the 11,000-plus crowd at the Connecticut Tennis Center, aching for a third set, tried to carry Capriati home.
Jennifer Capriati says her loss to Venus Williams in the semifinals at the Pilot Pen does not change her outlook going into the U.S. Open.
Instead, what those hopeful spectators got was a sobering vision of the future of women's tennis. Hint: it isn't Capriati, the feel-good, comeback story of the year in sports.
Williams, whose shrill grunts only materialize when the stakes warrant them, hit an unreachable volley, then a spectacular forehand winner. Shaken, Capriati steered a tentative forehand into the net. After Williams ripped another forehand winner, Capriati dumped two backhands into the net. Six straight points, in the white-hot heat of a big match.
And just like that, Williams was a 6-4, 7-6 (1) winner at the Pilot Pen tournament.
"I'm pretty pleased with it," Capriati said afterward. "Some things I could have done better, but I felt like I was close."
"I look at it as a good warm-up match before the Open," Capriati continued. "You know, obviously, that's where it counts. And this, you know, still gives me -- it doesn't change my attitude going into the Open at all."
Obviously. For the record, Capriati has never beaten Williams in three meetings. This is relevant because the U.S. Open is upon us and it likely will determine who will be anointed the women's player of the year.
It has been fashionable to say that this year's Open, which begins Monday, is the Wide Open, particularly on the women's side. Favorites include Martina Hingis, somehow still the world's No. 1 ranked player, Lindsay Davenport, the No. 3 player, young Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, resurgent Monica Seles and Serena Williams, the 1999 Open champion.
The truth is that, between them, Venus Williams and Capriati have won the past five Grand Slam singles titles. Williams finished the 2000 season with wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and Capriati took this year's Australian Open and French Open before Williams won Wimbledon.
Both Williams and Capriati politely allowed that they were among the favorites, but only Davenport, a congenital truth-teller, was willing to state the obvious.
"She won it last year and she's played well this summer." Davenport said on Saturday after falling to Williams in the Pilot Pen final in straight sets. "I would think that Venus is the favorite."
Tapping into toughness
Mental toughness is an over-used phrase that is bestowed upon athletes by the all-knowing media. Invariably, the winners have it and the losers, well, they don't. Divining what happens inside someone's brain is tackling a slippery slope, indeed, but that doesn't stop people from trying.
Williams' gentle, terminally bemused nature in interviews has led observers over the years to posit that she lacks the killer instinct necessary to become a consistent champion. Until last year, they were right. There were numerous episodes that suggested Williams wasn't taking the game seriously enough. Williams, in her candid, self-deprecating comments, has helped to advance that notion.
Venus Williams says she gave up during her 1999 U.S. Open match with Martina Hingis and that she'll never lose that way again.
But now, underneath Williams' airy veneer, there is someone who wants to win quite badly. Williams traces this transformation to a single match, the 1999 U.S. Open semifinals against Hingis.
It was a spectacular match, but Williams collapsed in the third set after breaking Hingis in the third game. Her legs cramped and a trainer was called on for fluids and a brief massage. Williams lost five of the last six games and the match, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.
"I just gave away the match," Williams said Saturday with obvious disgust. "I refused to win, basically. That was the last time I ever did anything like that."
And that almost makes it an unfair fight.
Tenacity aside, Williams is already the game's best athlete. At 6-foot-1, she has an unnatural wingspan and the speed to run down baseline balls other players can't. Her serve is the biggest bomb in women's tennis history, and like a seasoned pitcher she has learned to change speeds.
In the third game of the New Haven final, she blinded Davenport with this love service game: 1) a 92-mph slice outside for an ace, 2) a 103-mph slider down the T that was ricocheted wide, 3) a laser at 113 mph that was unreturnable and 4) a sliced second serve at 83 mph that Davenport was lucky to get her frame on.
When Williams comes to net, something she doesn't particularly like but seems to find herself doing more often, she wins points. On match point, she charged to pick up a ball that had skimmed off the net cord and when Davenport ripped a passing shot Williams would not be passed. She made a ridiculous back-handed stab volley to beat Davenport -- and this is almost hard to believe -- for the eighth time in their past 10 matches.
"I just didn't handle her pace as well as I need to and haven't maybe as well as I used to," Davenport said. "I still need to do better about dictating the points more and really trying to be more offensive than maybe I have been."
Williams has been more than merely offensive; she can be downright mean. In her quarterfinal match against Henin, she clipped the Belgian on the left wrist with a serve. Henin's sharp, flashed look was of hurt, not anger. When Davenport returned a serve that had been called out, Williams fired it back in the direction of her head. Davenport, who had turned around, spun back and glared at Williams. It wasn't a look of anger, but of surprise.
Both actions, intentional or not, underline Williams' steely approach.
In terms of tennis, Williams has actually been a late bloomer. Her father and coach, Richard, eschewed the traditional junior circuit, leaving Venus and Serena remarkably unsavvy for their age and stage.
Venus won her first Grand Slam last year at the age of 20; Hingis, by comparison, is three months younger and had already won her five Grand Slam titles by that age. Interestingly, Williams has closed the slam singles gap to 5-3 and it appears that she will finish her career well ahead of the Swiss star.
Richard Williams' main mantra that has helped his daughters succeed is self-sufficiency. There is no coach -- in New Haven, Venus' mother Oracene was listed as her coach -- chirping about practice and conditioning. Of course, independence can have a downside if you don't have the maturity to handle it.
Fashion, boys and the good life have all conspired to disturb the mechanical rhythms of practice and matches that the top players must adhere to. Hingis, who reportedly has discovered the opposite sex in a big way, is the most recent casualty in this area.
Still, somewhere between 20 and 21, Venus Williams decided to pay the price required of a champion. Capriati, who is four years older than Williams, discovered the same resolve late last year.
"I'm confident before I go out and play a match that I know I've put in the work and like I feel confident that I am going out there and play well," Capriati said last week. "Even against the top players, I'm always going to give them a good match and make it hard for them.
"Maybe it even starts before in the locker room. And, you know, that's helped me a lot. And maybe the other players don't play as well because of that. The tough situations, you know, I can really draw on -- in those experiences and think how I handled it before. I think to myself, 'I've been in this situation before and I've pulled it out.' "
Because of the vagaries of the WTA Tour, Capriati and Williams are ranked No. 2 and No. 4, respectively. The way the draw breaks down, they would meet in the semifinals. If Capriati manages to win the title, she would be the reigning women's player. Ditto for Williams.
There are numerous reasons to think that Williams will emerge after the fortnight at the National Tennis Center. Consider her hellacious run last week through the Pilot Pen field. When rain washed out her quarterfinal match with Henin on Thursday, she was forced to play two matches on Friday, a professional first.
It took three hours and 31 minutes, but Williams dispatched both Henin and Capriati, then came back the next day to defeat Davenport. In a span of less than 26 hours, Williams took out the world's No. 2, No. 3 and No. 6 players -- a concentrated, grueling test that even the U.S. Open isn't likely to present. Only the feisty Henin was able to take even a set from her.
The scary thing? These days Williams very rarely loses points because she isn't in position to make a shot. Most often, she fails when she goes for too much or tries to get too cute with a drop shot. In winning three of the past five Grand Slams, she has displayed a confidence and a new consistency that is, frankly, daunting to her rivals.
And this year, the defending champion insists, she is better prepared than last year for the Open.
"I was lazy last year," she admitted in New Haven. "I left the California tournaments and I went home for two weeks and I barely hit. When I go to a tournament, I will practice. At home [Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.] is where I guess I don't do my job the way I should.
"This year I did practice more, and I just -- I just like to win. I don't like losing, so if I want to keep winning, I know I have to practice."