So much history could well happen at this year’s Australian Open. Serena Williams may finally tie Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24 majors. Rafael Nadal is in pursuit of a record men’s total of 21. Novak Djokovic is hungry to reach 18. Ashleigh Barty is hoping to become the first Australian to win the singles title since 1978.

As we look forward, every major also offers a chance to look back. Fifty years ago, native son Ken Rosewall won the 1971 Australian men’s singles title at the age of 36 without the loss of a set—yet another achievement in the career of a remarkably sturdy champion who was the first man to win major singles titles in his teens, 20s and 30s (the only other two are Pete Sampras and Nadal).

While Rosewall represents a tale of sustained longevity, consider the story Jon Wertheim told Monday on Tennis Channel Live: the 20th anniversary of Jennifer Capriati’s first title run at a major. As Wertheim noted, “The arc of this is what makes it remarkable.”

In 1990, at Roland Garros, a 14-year-old Capriati reached the semifinals of the first major she ever played. The next year came semifinal appearances at Wimbledon and the US Open. Less than 12 months later, at the Barcelona Olympics, a win over Stefanie Graf in the gold-medal match.


Twenty years ago: Capriati wins first major in Melbourne

Twenty years ago: Capriati wins first major in Melbourne

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Then came a long period of exile. A burnt-out Capriati went two years without even playing a major, then another four without getting past the fourth round.

But in 2001, a 24-year-old Capriati didn’t just alter the arc, she blew it to smithereens. As Wertheim’s Unstrung piece showed, the No. 12-seeded American took the field by a storm, in the last three rounds beating her fellow future Hall of Famers, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis. Later that year came a championship at Roland Garros, followed in 2002 by another tear through Melbourne.

And lest you think tennis was far slower then, watch Capriati’s playing style: forceful, powerful, aggressive, dynamic. Many of her finest matches came versus Serena Williams, the two always certain to put on a showcase of first-rate ball-striking, movement and tenacity. They played one another 17 times, Capriati winning seven bouts.

Soon after that first win in Melbourne, Capriati said, “I feel as I’ve been reincarnated.” Her rebirth remains one of the most heartwarming stories in the history of tennis. Based on the possibilities at this year’s Australian Open, another might well be in the offing.

Twenty years ago: Capriati wins first major in Melbourne

Twenty years ago: Capriati wins first major in Melbourne