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Comeback queen Jennifer Capriati returns to the venue that "started it all" as she competes in the Hong Kong Ladies Challenge at Victoria Park armed with two Grand Slam titles under her belt - and cast in the unaccustomed role of heavy favourite here. <br />The 25-year-old American, ranked number two in the world, arrived in the SAR yesterday very different from the player who first came here two years ago reeling from a career crisis.
It was the same year her love affair with Hong Kong started as she signalled her return by beating Martina Hingis in the final on her way to victory in 2000.
That win sparked a massive climb back to the tennis summit. Although Capriati lost in last year's Hong Kong semi-finals to Russian glamour girl Anna Kournikova, the Florida native defied the odds by walking off with the Australian Open title, stunning Hingis for her first career Grand Slam title.
Capriati also won the French Open, beating Kim Clijsters in the final to become the first American woman since Chris Evert in 1986 to win in Paris. Capriati, semi-finalist at both Wimbledon and the US Open last year, also claimed the number one ranking for the first time in October.
And looking fresh after her long haul from Florida, Capriati declared she was "fit and ready" for the start of 2002, saying she had a special affinity for Victoria Park as the place that "started it all". No doubt, the Hong Kong public's special love affair will continue this week with the one-time troubled teenager seeded number one here.
"I'm feeling really good now and I am really looking forward to the new season. Will I repeat my achievements of last year? That's hard to say but I think it's going to be difficult. Let's see what happens. I am not sure whether I can do it or not but I will certainly try," said Capriati upon her arrival yesterday.
Capriati said she was "thrilled" to have won the accolades bestowed upon her at the end of year. She was named the Associated Press (AP) Female Athlete of the Year; world champion by the International Tennis Federation and was named Sports Illustrated's Sportswoman of the Year. "This really gives me the confidence to do well," said Capriati of her accolades. "It gives me the confidence to really go out there and play well for the coming year."
Capriati will be in action tomorrow at Victoria Park against Indonesian rookie Angelique Widjaja who would like nothing better than to get 2002 off to a flying start by claiming the scalp of the American. Widjaja has already won one professional title and should not be taken lightly even though she is 145 places lower than Capriati in the world singles ranking.
While Capriati returns to one of her favourite happy grounds at Victoria Park, Frenchwoman Mary Pierce will be making her own comeback after a season plagued by injuries.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Pierce is making her first tournament appearance in more than seven months and is fresh and hungry for success after suffering from a long series of injuries that included nagging hip, ankle, shoulder and back problems. "I'm feeling better than ever and I am ready for Hong Kong," said the 26-year-old Pierce recently.
"I feel good for the Australian Open and I will use Hong Kong as a good warmup for it. All the time I spent resting from my injuries has done me a lot of good and I now feel 100 per cent," she said.
Second seeded Pierce will take on Austria's Barbara Schett in this evening's opening match that kicks off the tournament at 6.30pm.
South Africa's Amanda Coetzer is on court in the night's second match. The 30-year-old Coetzer is a former world number three who is still playing in top form and has, amazingly, remained in the world's top 20 for most of a pro career that has spanned 13 years.
Coetzer, the smallest and oldest player in the event, is one of the most dangerous players, with lightning-fast movement and consistency her biggest weapons. She's the tournament's fourth seed.
Coetzer, who has made career semi-final appearances in both the Australian and French Opens, makes her Hong Kong debut against Russia's relatively unknown newcomer Lina Krasnoroutskaya.
Elena Dementieva is the third seed and the strapping Russian will be aiming to go one better after being ousted in last year's semi-finals by Yugoslavia's Jelena Dokic.
Dementieva takes on Tamarine Tanasugarn who completes the eight-woman field and the Thai star will be hoping to continue where compatriot and mixed doubles partner Paradorn Srichapan left off when he won the Asian men's singles title at Victoria Park a week ago.