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Riot Girls

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A year later, Davenport is still bristling. "I should have taken the final and didn't," she says. The lesson she learned is all about aggression: "You've gotta go after Venus." And this year, Davenport promises, she will.

Bring it on, answers Venus. "Last year was last year, and it was great," says the defending champ. "But I want it this year, too."

London's tabloids do an admirable job of whipping up two weeks of tennis-related headline froth during the Wimbledon fortnight. New York, though, adds its own special coarse sand to the grinding gears of women's-tennis hostility. In London, the players stay in comfortable flats within walking distance of the center-court shrine, and the atmosphere is suffused with genteel history. By the U.S. Open, however, the women are cranky and worn out from a grueling eight months of transatlantic hard-court combat. It's the ideal mood with which to greet the late August New York humidity. And whether it's Kournikova staying at the U.N. Plaza or the Williams sisters at the Essex House, all the players gripe about the battle through midtown traffic to Flushing Meadows. "It sometimes feels that we spend as much time in the car as we do on the court," Venus Williams says.

Capriati's U.S. Open memories are just as mixed. She stormed to the semifinals as a 15-year-old in 1991. Two years ago, she lost to Seles in the fourth round -- a respectable showing, considering she'd lost 30 pounds in the previous year as she attempted to reclaim her career. In her post-match press conference, Capriati read a heartfelt, if scattered, 500-word essay, attempting to shut the door on questions about her teenage "rebellion." Then she fell to pieces, the disappointment of the loss and the relentlessness of the reporter's questions destroying what little self-confidence she'd pieced back together. In tears, Capriati fell into the arms of a WTA press aide, then into a hug from her bawling mother.

The tabloids judged Capriati's performance pathetic. Now the moment looks cathartic. "It was a line of demarcation of her maturing and growing up," says Harold Solomon, the former men's pro who was Capriati's coach at the time. "That was the point where she went from a little girl to a woman, standing up for herself, taking responsibility for herself, and growing up, as far as her inner self was concerned, right after that. It made a huge difference for her."

Not that Capriati has learned to balance her life completely. She pushed herself into prime physical condition at the beginning of 2000, won some mid-level tournaments, and saw her ranking rise from 101 to 12. Her forehand was smacking wicked, sinking returns, balls so heavy they deserved their own atomic number.

Then Capriati fell in love. She hooked up with Belgian tennis player Xavier Malisse, put on fifteen pounds, and began to sputter out in the early rounds. Capriati is something of an obsessive, devoting herself wholly to one pursuit at a time, and for six months the object of all her attention was Malisse. She split with Solomon and reinstalled her father as her coach.

Then, in November, the relationship with Malisse foundered. Tennis filled the void. Capriati began to train more seriously again, and in January defeated Hingis in a shocking upset to win the Australian Open.

Venus Williams claims she isn't annoyed by all the hype proclaiming 2001 as "Capriati's year." Yet she is well aware that her own accomplishments are getting lost. If she repeats as U.S. Open champ, Venus will have won four of the past six major tourneys. Women's tennis hasn't seen that kind of sustained dominance since the heyday of Steffi Graf.

Critics complain that the Williams sisters don't play enough tennis, but Venus seems to be peaking at exactly the right moment. Two weeks ago, in San Diego, Venus flattened Seles in straight sets while making just fourteen unforced errors.

Last year, John McEnroe stoked an Open controversy by demeaning the women's tour and the Williams sisters in particular, all but promising he could beat either Serena or Venus with one hand tied behind his 42-year-old back. This year, there's a new attraction immediately after the women's final, a Heineken-sponsored nostalgia exhibition between Boris Becker and McEnroe.

Picture it: The match everyone wants to see, pitting defending champ Venus against girl-of-the-year Capriati, starts at 8 p.m. After three tingling sets, the beaming winner basks in a trophy ceremony.

Soon it's midnight. McEnroe shuffles onto center court. There's more crushed beer cups than fans in the stands. Johnny Mac always did want to be a rock star. Now he'll know what it felt like to be the band that followed the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.


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