Originally created 01/13/02

Defending champs share bond



SYDNEY, Australia - When it comes to defending a Grand Slam title, Jennifer Capriati can look to Andre Agassi for inspiration.

To win again at the Australian Open, Capriati will have to be better than Venus and Serena Williams, or a reinvigorated Martina Hingis, or Belgian pair Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

Agassi, chasing his third consecutive Australian Open title, might have to renew his old rivalry with Pete Sampras if he's to win again.

Or he might have to mix it up with the new breed of contenders led by U.S. Open champion and new No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt.

Capriati, 25, won her first Slam championship at this tournament in January 2001 in Sydney. It capped a stunning comeback after a tumultuous decade for the right-handed Floridian, who skidded after reaching the semifinals at the 1991 French Open at age 14 and winning an Olympic gold medal in '92.

After her Australian Open success came a win at the French Open, and she made the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to reach a career-high No. 1 ranking before finishing 2001 at No. 2.

A lot has changed for Capriati since she won her first Grand Slam title.

She was bounced out of the adidas International in Sydney last week in the second round by American qualifier Alexandra Stevenson. She was also eliminated at the same stage at the same tournament last year, but she says the lack of match practice obviously didn't do her any harm.

"I'm looking forward to starting all over again, but I don't want to get ahead of myself and start thinking, 'I have to repeat last year,"' she said. "I'll start putting pressure on myself that way - so I just look at it as a fresh start."

Defending a major championship "is a new experience for me," she said. "I have to go in there and play like the player that I am, and just concentrate on that."

After coming back from a No. 128 ranking in 1998 to No. 14 in 2000, she was seeded No. 12 for the last Australian Open and became the lowest seed to win a Grand Slam title.

Now she's the No. 1 seed, elevated after top-ranked Lindsay Davenport withdrew with a knee injury.

Challenging her is Venus Williams, who hasn't lost a match since July and in the meantime defended her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.

En route to the last Australian Open championship, Capriati beat No. 1 Hingis, No. 2 Davenport and No. 4 Monica Seles, but she didn't get to play Williams, who lost in the semifinals.

Williams said she's traveled to Australia to win a major. She warmed up with a win at the Australian Women's Hardcourt tournament on the Gold Coast earlier in the month then took a week off to rest up for her main objective.

Hingis, returning from a three-month layoff with an ankle injury, is desperate to add to her five Grand Slam trophies. She won the Australian Open from 1997-99 but hasn't won a Grand Slam title since then.

The 21-year-old Swiss expects Capriati will be on a steep learning curve.

"If you're at the top, everyone is going to try to beat you. They have nothing to lose, and they go out there without fear," she said.

Clijsters and Henin shot up the rankings into the top 10 last year, and both made Grand Slam finals, but neither has the power game to match the Williams sisters if they're in form.

The men's championship is wide open.

Hewitt is the top seed but has been sidelined since the Hopman Cup with chicken pox. He's never advanced past the fourth round at his national Open, although his buildup has been very different.

In the past he's won at Adelaide and Sydney to prepare. This year, he's been reclusive and recovering from sickness, conserving his energies and concentrate on winning consecutive majors.

Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, the No. 2 seed, has been plagued by a groin injury and isn't in good shape.

Of the young stars, Marat Safin didn't play well in Auckland last week and has slipped from No. 2 to No. 11 in the last 12 months, while 19-year-old American Andy Roddick has never been past the quarterfinals at a Slam.

"People keep saying Agassi and Sampras have gone to sleep, but they keep winning titles and proving everyone wrong," Roddick said. "But on form you can't go past Lleyton - he's been winning everything under the sun since the (U.S.) Open. He's got to be the favorite."

Agassi, seeded third, knows what it's like to make a comeback. He returned from a career low in No. 122 in 1997 to No. 6 in 1998. He also knows how to win consecutive Australian Opens.

He's vying to be the first man to win three consecutive Australian Opens since Roy Emerson, who won five in a row from 1963-67.

Jack Crawford is the only other man to do have done it, winning three in a row from 1931-33.

The 31-year-old Agassi has other distractions in his life, having recently married Steffi Graf and having baby Jaden Gil. But he's still focused.

"I'm on a good course right now. I feel to get out there on the court and work hard with my feet and execute my shots and then the conditions are miserable - that helps me a lot - I'll be ready to get into the Open and hopefully find my game at the times I'm going to need it most."

Sampras is No. 8 and Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, who failed to qualify for this event last year, is No. 10.

Sampras has two Australian Opens among his 13 Grand Slam titles, but hasn't won a major since Wimbledon 2000 and hasn't won a title in his last 20 tournaments.

He had a disappointing 2001, finishing at No. 10, his lowest ranking since 1989. It was also the first year since 1992 that he didn't win at least one major championship.