On this day 20 years ago: Jennifer Capriati wins her first major title

On this day 20 years ago: Jennifer Capriati wins her first major title

On January 27, 2001, one of the most compelling comeback stories in the history of the sport came full circle at the Australian Open.

It was on this day 20 years ago when one of tennis’ most compelling comeback stories came full circle. Jennifer Capriati—a one-time teenage prodigy who had been all but out of the game just a few years before—won her first Grand Slam title, as well as the hearts of sports fans across the globe.

To say Capriati burst onto the scene as a teenager would be an understatement—it was more of an explosion. She reached the final of her very first WTA event as a 13-year-old at Boca Raton in 1990, and a few months later after turning 14, she reached the semifinals of the first Grand Slam she ever played at Roland Garros. She would break the Top 10 later that year and remained among the elite for much of the next three seasons, reaching two more major semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1991.

Capriati spent much of the mid-'90s in the tennis wilderness. Playing just one match in 1994 and none at all in 1995, she subsequently fell off the rankings. But that wasn’t the end of her story—not even close. She returned to the tour in 1996, then to the Top 30 in 1997 and the Top 20 by 2000.

And the best was yet to come.

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As the No. 12 seed and having never been through to the final of a major before, Capriati's first Grand Slam title run was a true fairytale at the 2001 Australian Open. She survived some scares along the way, dodging a first-round upset against No. 37-ranked Henrieta Nagyova, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, and then rallying from 7-5 4-2 down to make it past No. 4 Monica Seles in the quarterfinals, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.

Once the American emerged from her quarterfinal slugfest with countrywoman Seles, there was no stopping her. She took out the Top 2 players in the world in straight sets—first No. 2-ranked Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-4, and then No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis in the final, 6-4, 6-3.

She finished it off in style, ripping one last backhand return winner up the line on championship point.

“It was a winner down the line, but it was just the slowest winner,” Capriati told press afterwards, laughing. “It just kept, you know, going—I mean, as soon as I saw that it was clean, and that I had done it, the reality just hit me then that, you know, ‘Oh my God.’ I just jumped for joy. That was it.

“I couldn’t believe it just really happened.”

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Though many thought she would win a major during her first few years on the tour in her teenage days, that wasn't really the case for Capriati. “I think I was just too young to really think about it like that,” she said. “You know, then, I just played every match, took it match by match, and that was it. The only time I really thought about it was in that semifinal against Monica at the Open, when I actually thought, ‘Wow, I could win a Grand Slam.’ After that, I didn’t really have more opportunities.”

But after breaking the ice that day in Melbourne, it was a different Capriati.

“I’m no longer going to doubt myself in anything. Now I know that anything’s possible," said Capriati, who would eventually capture three Grand Slam titles and reach No. 1 on the WTA rankings. "I mean, if I can come home with a Grand Slam, then I know for sure that anything is possible.”