Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Idleness costly for Capriati

The Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia - For two weeks, Jennifer Capriati stayed out of sunlight, recovering from surgery to her eyes.

She even considered skipping the Australian Open but felt an obligation to play as the two-time defending champion.

Capriati certainly didn't look like a Grand Slam winner Monday, her game simply collapsing midway through a first-round 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4 loss to 90th-ranked Marlene Weingartner of Germany.

No defending women's champion had lost in the first round of this Grand Slam tournament in the Open era.

"I'm not trying to make excuses, that's for sure," Capriati said. "But I have to say it had a lot to do with my preparation for coming here."

Capriati's ouster came on a day when Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport won, as did three-time winner Andre Agassi.

Capriati figures she still needs up to a month to get back in shape after the operation. "Probably, if I wasn't the defending champion, I wouldn't have shown up," she said.

Capriati struggled with her serve but opened a 6-2, 4-2 lead. Then Weingartner began finding the range.

"She was just hitting some great shots," Capriati said. "I just felt the momentum swing, and mentally and physically I wasn't strong enough."

Weingartner reached match point with a forehand serve return down the line. She then hit deep to the corner, and Capriati sent the ball into the net.

"I think I deserved it," Weingartner said. "I played really well, and I just went for it."

Weingartner was playing her first match on center court in a Grand Slam tournament.

"I really like this atmosphere," she said. "But I just needed a little bit of time to get into it."

Capriati's eye condition is known as pterygiums, a growth on the cornea caused by exposure to the sun.

"I couldn't see properly, and I guess they were getting worse," she said.

She had surgery after the WTA Tour Championships in November, resulting in stitches in both eyes.

"For two weeks, basically, I was in the dark, because I couldn't be in the sunlight. My eyes were too sensitive," she said.

Last year, Capriati won the Australian Open final in three sets as Martina Hingis wilted in the heat. This time, she gave herself credit "for being strong enough to just come and give my best and try to fight no matter what happens."

The last defending men's champion to lose in the first round at the Australian Open was Boris Becker in 1997. Agassi, the 1995, 2000 and 2001 champion, didn't even get to the first round last year. He went home with a wrist injury from a tuneup event.

This time, Agassi scored a 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Brian Vahaly, a former All-American at Virginia.

"It has, unfortunately, been a lot longer than I wish it was. It was good to get out there again," Agassi said.

He is seeded second behind Lleyton Hewitt, trying to become the first Australian champion here since Mark Edmondson in 1976.

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