Careers interrupted

Once hailed as potential champions for the ages, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis have battled the pressure of expectations and struggled with problems of self-image, burnout, and injury — not to mention a pair of women named Williams. Can any of these beleaguered former No. 1 players ever win big again? By Peter Bodo.

Once hailed as potential champions for the ages, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis have battled the pressure of expectations and struggled with problems of self-image, burnout, and injury — not to mention a pair of women named Williams. Can any of these beleaguered former No. 1 players ever win big again? By Peter Bodo.

It seems like only yesterday that the names Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis were invoked by tennis fans with the reverential tone once reserved for women with names like Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf. Separated in age by just five years (Capriati is 27, Davenport 26, and Hingis 22) each had been a prodigy and each had emerged as an impact player on tour while their contemporaries agonised over what to wear to their proms. And all three eventually won Grand Slam titles and were ranked No. 1 in the world. But as the meat of the 2003 Slam season approaches, none has appeared in the final of a major for a year and a half.

Even the harshest critic couldn't label any of them failures. But the well may have run dry for these multiple-Grand Slam winners. By rebelling, dawdling, or otherwise ignoring the champion's mandate to win as often as possible, they may have thwarted their own chances of joining the pantheon of legendary players.

Lindsay Davenport is clear on the subject of how she would feel if she never won a major again. While recuperating from knee surgery early in 2002, she and Robert Van't Hof (her coach at the time) talked about the subject often and the conversations amounted to a wake-up call. "I was really upset by the idea," she says. "I thought, `Oh my gosh, I will be so bummed if my career is over right now." Capriati was similarly vexed following surgery to correct her clouded vision last winter. Before crashing and burning in the first round of the 2003 Australian Open, she said, "You know, I'd like to say that if I'm playing my best I'll be winning everything, but I can't say that nowadays."

Hingis, for her part, has simply abdicated in the wake of nagging foot injuries. She says she has retired from the tour, telling the Zurich daily Tagesanzeiger, "My dreams are over. It's sad to have to end everything at 22, but sometimes you have to open your eyes."

Once hailed as potential champions for the ages, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis have battled the pressure of expectations and struggled with problems of self-image, burnout, and injury — not to mention a pair of women named Williams. Can any of these beleaguered former No. 1 players ever win big again? By Peter Bodo.

Anyone looking at the women's game today can see that the pecking order has changed dramatically with the emergence of Venus and Serena Willliams as mature, all-conquering champions. They've appeared, individually or together, in six of the last seven Grand Slam finals and raised the bar in the women's game to a height that none of their rivals can clear on a regular basis. As Davenport said in Australia in January, "The last time I won here, in 2000, the Williams sisters were not a dominant factor in women's tennis. They were a lot more inconsistent. They pose huge, huge hurdles now."

Now that the Williams sisters are front and centre, the saga of Capriati, Hingis, and Davenport is on the verge of becoming a tale of lost or abandoned potential. Consider this: Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who was never hailed as the next anyone (Capriati was supposed to be the next Evert, while Hingis was hailed as the successor to Graf), won more majors (four) than Capriati or Davenport have, and just one fewer than Hingis.

Moreover, while Venus and Serena are putting distance between themselves and the rest of the pack, a handful of improving players like Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and Daniela Hantuchova are pressing from behind.

Given all this, it's reasonable to ask what went wrong, and what any of the women can still do to enhance their resumes for the Tennis Hall of Fame.

MARTINA HINGIS: As a teenager, Hingis once livened up a press conference following a hard-fought win over Venus Williams by playfully tossing around some beads that had shaken loose from Williams' hair on court. Back in those days, circa 1998, Hingis combined imperious self-confidence with an impish smile and ready wit. And she had reason to feel confident to bursting.

Once hailed as potential champions for the ages, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis have battled the pressure of expectations and struggled with problems of self-image, burnout, and injury — not to mention a pair of women named Williams. Can any of these beleaguered former No. 1 players ever win big again? By Peter Bodo.

The youngest junior Grand Slam titlist (she won the Roland Garros junior championship in 1993 at 12, beating the mark established by — who else? — Capriati), Hingis turned pro at age 14. In 1997, she won three majors and reached the final of the fourth. But from there, Hingis would win just two more Grand Slams, both in Australia.

Hingis' frustrations were cumulative, and her fall from grace was foreshadowed by her failure to win on what is nominally her surface of choice, the clay at Roland Garros. Her struggles in Paris pointed to a shortage of physical and emotional stamina, and a lack of power that her rivals would soon learn to exploit. But she refused to see the handwriting on the wall, saying after a surprising loss to Mary Pierce at Roland Garros in 2000, "I have a lot of years in front of me. I have nothing to worry about right now." She was wrong. In January of 2002, with mental and physical tolls mounting, she had one more shot at a major, in the final of the Australian Open. But she squandered four match points against Capriati and lost. "I wonder," says Pam Shriver, Hall-of-Famer and television commentator, "what if she had won one of the four points? I think her foot would be a lot better. And maybe she wouldn't have felt the need to get back on tour so soon. Now, everything's changed."

Insiders speculate that Hingis' realisation that she may never again be a top player helped her make the decision to retire. And while Davenport challenged Hingis to come back, Capriati echoed the armchair psychologists when she said Hingis' retirement "was probably from a combination of things, a snowball effect."

Hingis is said to have scheduled some summer exhibition matches, and her manager Mario Widmer has avoided using the word "retirement." But the last 12 matches Hingis played against the Williams sisters were telling: she won only two of her last eight meetings with Venus and lost the last three times she played Serena, most recently in a 6-4, 6-0 wipeout at Miami in 2002.

Hingis knows Serena Williams can push her around and impose her will on court. "Once I get into a rally," Hingis has said, "it's a different story. It's just that she has a great serve and she has great returns so right away you feel you're on defense. That makes getting on top of her very difficult."

The problem, should Hingis return, can be summed up in one word: power. Hingis has too little, her chief rivals have an abudance. Reliant from Day One on her strategic, nuanced understanding of the game, Hingis has admitted, "The game used to be slower. You had more time to think where you're going to hit the shot. Today, sometimes it's like, `OK, wait a minute. I need to think where I'm going to hit the next shot.' But you just don't have the time."

LINDSAY DAVENPORT: Before she won her first Grand Slam title, at the 1998 U.S. Open, Davenport confessed to feeling uncomfortable with her role as the USTA poster child and great hope, the lone American deemed capable of beating Graf or Hingis. Ever self-conscious in the spotlight (this was one of the main reasons for her failure to win a Slam until she was 22), Davenport in recent years seemed to draw inspiration from having Hingis as an ally in the battle against the Williams sisters.

Now, who knows? Davenport is engaged to Jon Leach, brother of doubles specialist Rick, and the upcoming wedding will be distraction. But she's trying to convert the new stability it represents into an asset. "I've struggled with not playing as well as I can," she said. "But I have to remember that I have nothing to lose and nothing to prove. This should be the most fun for me, these last few years."

That kind of thing has always been easier said than done for the emotional Davenport, who was so discombobulated when Van't Hof quit as her full-time coach last year that she pondered retirement herself. But despite her unresolved coaching situation, and the fact that she remains subject to dark moods and fits of pique on court, Davenport does have a solid grasp of what she has to do to challenge the Williams sisters and win major title again. "I need to get my game even more aggressive," she said. It's about trying to move forward into the court, trying to hit hard shots, and getting good depth. My serve once was a huge weapon, but I feel like it hasn't been as effective lately. A lot of times my game revolves around my serve — if I'm serving well, I get a lot of confidence. We're working on that."

Still, Davenport says the 105-m.p.h. serves that most women can't return effectively are often launched back at warp speed by the Williams sisters. Add to this the damage the sisters can do with their own serves, and the challenge becomes even more daunting.

"It's hard to go out there and face someone who serves so much harder than the other women," Davenport says. "When they come at one hundred ten, one hundred fourteen miles an hour, I mean, no one else on the tour does that."

JENNIFER CAPRIATI: Not long ago, when Capriati was asked to comment on Serena Williams' declaration that she wanted to go through an entire year undefeated, she testily replied, "I just answer questions about my game. I have no comment about that."

Once hailed as potential champions for the ages, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, and Martina Hingis have battled the pressure of expectations and struggled with problems of self-image, burnout, and injury — not to mention a pair of women named Williams. Can any of these beleaguered former No. 1 players ever win big again? By Peter Bodo.

More than any other player, Capriati has been stung by the success of the Williams sisters. It has derailed her own comeback and robbed her of the chance to bask in the glory of the accomplishments that transformed her career from cautionary tale to fairy tale. And Serena has been the greatest source of her torment.

At the peak of her resurgence in 2001, when Capriati had the first two legs of the Grand Slam (the Australian Open and Roland Garros) in hand, she subdued Serena in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in a fine three-set match. Since then, Serena has been in the final of every major she has played, while Capriati has reached just one, the 2002 Australian Open. No wonder Capriati has engaged in some highly publicised sniping with Serena's father, Richard, and seemingly become obsessed with a rival she used to beat consistently.

From the time Capriati beat Serena at Wimbledon until the end of last year, Williams reeled off six consecutive wins over her, five of which went to three sets. This spurred Capriati to become faster, stronger, and fitter, but it also led to intense frustration. After she lost to Williams in the semifinals at the WTA's year-end tour championship 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, Capriati was puzzled by how she so consistently fails to convert crucial points against Serena. "I'm still asking myself those questions," she said. "It's just a matter of a few points here and there, but she has played tough on those points."

Recognising that she's bamboozled, Capriati knows she has to fine-tune every aspect of both her mental and strategic game to get back in the hunt at the Grand Slams. "In tight situations, I just need to really slow down and take my time while still playing an aggressive, go-for-it kind of game. You just need that kind of attitude, instead of getting tense or maybe getting afraid to win or thinking about the moment too much."

Strategically, Capriati said, "I need to hit deep to the baseline, move the ball around, and move forward a lot. I don't have quite as much confidence in my net game as I should. I shouldn't be surprised when I come to net and win the point, you know? But that's something I've been working on."

The long-term impact of Capriati's eye problems (she had pterygiums removed from both eyes in December 2002) hasn't been determined, but it will take sweeping vision to find a strategy for beating the Williams sisters and to fend off the new wave of contenders. Perhaps it was an omen when, early this year, Capriati made a distinctly unchampion-like remark about her current ambitions.

"My expectation," she said, "is not to expect too much from myself."