By SELENA ROBERTS
A decade ago, Jennifer Capriati was the beloved wonder teen, billed as the wholesome tour sweetheart, projected as the next Chris Evert, expected to be adorable from every camera angle.
Under the pressure, she became sullen, irritable and dropped out of sight.
A year ago, Capriati was an embraceable figure, a woman who had emerged from the darkness, gifted with a sense of herself, predicted to be a major threat to the Williams sisters.
Feeling the burden, she has become agitated, moody and confrontational.
For the second time in her life, Capriati is being asked to create a fairy tale. Once again, Capriati is desperate not to let anyone down. Those close to her say privately that she is trying too hard to please, wanting too much to fulfill expectations, hoping to be everything to everyone.
This responsibility was visible at Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday. With a chance to serve for the match against 10th-seeded Amélie Mauresmo and take her appointed spot in the United States Open semifinals, Capriati could not cope and lost, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3.
"I felt tight throughout the whole match," the third-seeded Capriati said, later explaining, "I think getting tight is basically saying you choked."
Basically, one double fault and two unforced errors later, Capriati found herself in a tie breaker she did not win and two third-set serves she could not hold in a dispiriting outcome.
"I guess everybody's going to get an all-Williams final now," Denise Capriati, Jennifer's mother, said off-handedly. It was not intended, but she put a voice to the kind of burden her daughter is under, whether external or self-induced. Whatever the culprit, Capriati has the feeling that she is the one who is
supposed to break up the pattern of all-Williams majors.
The pattern is a little closer to happening for the fourth time in five majors. Last night, Venus Williams advanced to meet Mauresmo in the semifinals after she cleaned up her forehand, brushed up her serve and methodically ended the run of the sentimental favorite, Monica Seles, 6-2, 6-3. Venus's sister Serena had taken her place in the semifinals a day earlier and will face Lindsay Davenport.
"You come into a tournament wanting to win," Seles said. "I faced a player who was better in every department."
Capriati has faith that she can contend with the Williams sisters, especially after all the work she has put in in the last few weeks. In the spring, her fitness dropped off. But yesterday, she seemed physically ready to handle Mauresmo.
Mentally, the confidence was not there. She allowed pressure to creep into her head as the match unfolded. Suddenly, her destiny as a semifinalist with a chance to take on Venus was over.
"There's a difference between wanting to and then expecting yourself to and thinking that you should be up there," Capriati said. "Of course, a lot of other people think I should be up there. It's something that I haven't really felt in a while, and maybe I've been feeling it more lately."
It has been a decade since so much was expected of Capriati. This year, the cycle began again. After winning three majors since the 2001 Australian Open, Capriati's trend of bowing out of majors before the finals has her wondering what's going on.
"Sometimes, the opponent is going to play well also, and it's like, even if that happens, I should win," said Capriati, who committed 51 unforced errors. "I don't know. It's just a lot of stuff going on, maybe."
Same stuff as in the past. Instead of thinking about the titles and the accolades and the fans who have never left her side, Capriati has plunged into a familiar funk.
"I mean, human beings are the only ones that go over and over and do the same mistakes over and over," Capriati said. "We never learn. It's still a different kind of pressure; that's something I have to go back and figure out."
Her desire to probe is a positive sign. This time, Capriati wants to think her problems through, not run from them.
Psychology aside, Capriati also lost to a player who confounds her on the court with a cocktail of slice and topspin. Mauresmo may stay on the baseline or race to the net. In need of rhythm, Capriati has not found one against Mauresmo recently. In three months, Capriati has lost to Mauresmo three times.
"I know she doesn't like to play against me," Mauresmo said. "Maybe she gets a little bit tight when she has to play against me. I've beaten her a few times. As I just said, my game is a little bit different from the other players on the Tour. Maybe she's not used to that so much."
Capriati was not comfortable with the pace on Mauresmo's shots, or her pace between points. Often, Mauresmo refused to be pulled into Capriati's hurry-up style. She took her time in the changeovers and held up her hand to slow down Capriati between serves. Capriati had no comment on Mauresmo's tactics, but Stefano Capriati, Jennifer's father, was less diplomatic.
"When you're ready to serve, the receiver has to be ready," he said. "She was disturbing Jennifer. You saw that."
Mauresmo's strategy did not cause Capriati to flub her opportunities. In the third game of the third set, Capriati made a dazzling save of a break point. She scurried to a drop shot to flick a ball up the line, then raced back to retrieve a lob as it licked the baseline. Capriati lunged to get an overhead by Mauresmo, driving a forehand at her knees. Mauresmo could not handle the heat, plopping a volley into the net.
Drenched from the humidity, panting from the laborious point, Capriati shook a defiant fist as she absorbed a roar from the crowd. But two deuce points later, she botched her momentum with a double fault. As a dubious follow-up, Capriati responded to the next break point against her with a forehand stab at a crosscourt shot by Mauresmo that went wide.
Undone by that game, Capriati never recovered her composure enough for a comeback. She had one last chance to extend the day at the end, but she could not find the critical point to make Mauresmo serve out the match. After fighting off four match points with a series of miracle shots, Capriati's keen survival skills gave out on her with a tight forehand that sailed long.
"It's very frustrating because you try to do everything you can to just kind of relax out there," Capriati said. "I think it's probably just a lot of expectations and pressure that I put on myself."
In a way, it's like 1992 again. But at 26, she may be better equipped to solve the pressure behind her need to please.
A new coach and renewed dedication might bring a resurgent Cappy back to her old game by Oz 2003.