Twenty years ago, a tennis comeback in Australia like no other

The day Jennifer Capriati played the game of her career was sweltering hot.

It was late January 2002 and Capriati, then 25, was up against Martina Hingis, 21, in the women’s final of the Australian Open in Melbourne. Conditions were so muggy – temperatures on the pitch reached 115 Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) – that both players collapsed between points against the backdrop of the stadium, even after bathing in ice during a 10-minute intermission between points. the second and third set. They even took turns plopping their worn bodies down in a linesman’s chair.

It’s been 20 years since Capriati came back from a set, falling 4-0 to beat Hingis 4-6, 7-6 (9-7), 6-2 to claim the third and final major of her career. She became the first woman in Grand Slam history to save four match points and win the title.

“The way they both hit in that game was just amazing,” said Harold Solomon, Capriati’s coach from 1999 to 2000. “Jennifer was a great striker because she got the ball so early and she wasn’t scared even when she fell. She was as good an athlete as anyone who has ever played in the game, including the Williams sisters.”

The match would go down in history as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of women’s Grand Slam tennis. No woman has since saved four match points to win a grand final.

Capriati made her professional debut in March 1990, just before her 14th birthday, reaching the semifinals of the French Open and the round of 16 at Wimbledon and the United States Open that year. By the end of the season, she had won her first WTA tournament and was in the top 10 in the world.

Hingis was also a child prodigy. She reached her first semifinal of the US Open in 1996 when she was 15 years old. The following year, she reached the finals of all four majors, winning Wimbledon and the Australian and US Opens.

In 1992, Capriati defeated Steffi Graf to win gold at the Barcelona Olympics. But a series of events in 1993 and ’94, including a shoplifting charge, an arrest for marijuana possession, and a stint in rehab, nearly derailed her career.

But Capriati fought her way back and in 2001 she won the Australian Open by beating the world No. 1 Hingis. Capriati followed that up with a victory over Kim Clijsters in the final of the French Open and a semi-final at Wimbledon and the US. Open. In October 2001, Capriati became the number 1 in the world.

“Determination and willpower have always been strong points for Jennifer,” Denise Capriati, Jennifer’s mother, said by phone from her Florida home. “She always knew how to fight.”

But no game was more eye-catching than the Australian final of 2002. Hingis raced to a 6-4, 4-0 lead and held on to a point for 5-0. She did this by using Capriati’s blazing fast pace to hit short corners, followed by trips to the net and soft volley winners.

But Hingis made a double fault on an important point and Capriati took advantage. She saved a match point with a backhand down-the-line winner and another after a 14-stroke rally. Two more match points went by in the tiebreak, prompting Hingis to throw her racket in disgust before both players left the field to the cool of the locker room.

“At that point we knew Jennifer had the match,” said her mother, who was sitting in the player box. “She was better in the heat.”

Hingis had leg cramps and was treated after the fifth game of the third set. In the next game, she served three unexplained foot fouls and gave Capriati the crucial break.

“I really don’t know how I managed to win,” Capriati said at the time. “I have my second wind, third wind, fourth wind, I don’t know how many winds there are.”

For Hingis, who reached the Australian finals six years in a row and won the title from 1997 to ’99, the loss was devastating. “It was a tough final for her to lose, and it’s hard for her to talk/think about,” said Natasha Marks, her representative, in a text message. Hingis declined to be interviewed for this article.

Capriati did not respond to repeated phone and text messages.

After the hype early in her career, Capriati developed her own free fall and then her own resurgence. The 2002 Australian Open was the highlight.

“She wanted it so badly,” Denise said. “She had fought so hard and done so many things. She was so disciplined to come back. She only did it for herself.”