MELBOURNE, Australia -- The smile is back, and so are those thunderous groundstrokes into the corners that leave echoes in the air.
Nearly a decade after landing in her first major semifinals as a precocious, smiling 14-year-old, Jennifer Capriati is in the Australian Open semis and challenging for a Grand Slam title again.
"Right now I believe I can go all the way," Capriati said. "I've come this far, so I'm not going to think otherwise."
If there were any doubts that Capriati, at 23, is ready to contend for major titles once more, she erased them Tuesday.
Not even a strained abdominal muscle, which caused her to take an early injury timeout, slowed Capriati in a thorough 6-0, 6-2 thrashing of Ai Sugiyama, who had knocked off No. 4 Mary Pierce.
Like Capriati, Andre Agassi dropped out of the top 100 a few years ago and worked his way back -- in his case dramatically to No. 1. Now after following Capriati's victory with his own 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 triumph over Morocco's Hicham Arazi, Agassi is one win from his fourth straight Grand Slam final.
But standing in Agassi's way is likely to be Pete Sampras, who plays Chris Woodruff in the quarterfinals Tuesday night. Sampras beat Agassi in their Wimbledon final last year.
For Capriati, though, Agassi showed her that coming back from way down was not impossible.
"It just so happened that it was just at the same time that we were both trying to make a comeback," Capriati said. "Yes, he has been an inspiration. I can't say I'm an inspiration for him because he got there before I did. He beat me."
Capriati struggled at times, losing matches that once would have been easy, fighting through injuries that stalled her progress, dealing with an emotional roller coaster, but she never gave up.
"I kind of decided at the end of last year, I wanted to keep going forward, forward, forward," said Capriati, who lost in the fourth round of the U.S. Open last September and left a news conference sobbing.
Capriati hadn't reached a Grand Slam semifinals since Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1991, when she was almost universally viewed as the future star of women's tennis.
But she fell in the quarterfinals of majors six times over the next two years, then drifted out of the game and didn't play the full Grand Slam circuit until last year, when she failed to get past the fourth round.
This time, at a tournament where she had never gone past the quarters, she showed that all her work in coming back, all the practice sessions with coach Harold Solomon have paid off.
"He said I could go all the way to No. 1," Capriati said. "I have a lot of respect for him, and that right away lifted my confidence."
For Capriati, the second time around near the top is more fulfilling.
"I appreciated it then, but I was young. It came a little bit easier then," she said. "It's not the same as now. I really had to work hard to get to this point.
"I didn't accomplish everything that I wanted. If I'd stopped, it would have been a really short career. I thought I had a lot more tennis in me. I stopped thinking about what the world would think of me. That was a big step in my progress."
Playing under the closed roof because of light showers, Capriati crushed returns so consistently that Sugiyama managed to win only four points on serve in the first set, which lasted just 24 minutes. Capriati kept pummeling groundstrokes down the lines to race to a 4-0 lead in the second set before finally yielding on her own serve.
After Sugiyama held serve for the first and only time, Capriati closed out the match by holding serve easily and breaking Sugiyama for the sixth time to win in 55 minutes.
"I really felt in a groove out there," said Capriati, who hit 16 winners to Sugiyama's one.
"She played unbelievably good," Sugiyama said. "I didn't play good tennis at all, but she didn't make mistakes. Even if I hit a good shot, she hit a better shot. If Jennifer played like this all the time, she'd be in the top five."
Capriati, who came into the Australian ranked No. 21, shrugged off the injury and said it won't hamper her in the semis against the winner of Tuesday night's Lindsay Davenport-Julie Halard-Decugis match.
Capriati is already assured of moving up to No. 17 after the Australian Open, and if she beats Davenport will jump to at least No. 11.
Capriati turned pro just before her 14th birthday in 1990, and a few months later reached the semifinals at the French. But after she got to the semis at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the following year, she crashed steadily downward as she viewed herself a failure for not going further.
Now she will be playing in a major semifinal for the fourth time, with a legitimate chance to go to her first final.
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