January 13, 2003: When Jennifer Capriati became the first female defending champion to lose in Australian Open first round

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 2003 to witness how world No 3 Jennifer Capriati blew a 6-2, 4-2 lead to be eliminated by world No 90 Marlene Weingartner, becoming the first female defending champion to be ousted in the opening round of the Australian Open

What happened exactly

On this day, January 13, 2003, Jennifer Capriati, the double defending champion, was defeated in the first round of the Australian Open by world No 90 Marlene Weingartner (2-6, 7-6, 6-4). The American hadn’t fully recovered from the eye surgery she had undergone at the end of the previous season.

The players involved: Jennifer Capriati and Marlene Weingartner

  • Jennifer Capriati, the troubled prodigy

Jennifer Capriati was born in March 1976, in Long Island, New York. In 1986, her family moved to Florida, where, following the instructions of Chris Evert’s father, Jimmy, she became a real tennis prodigy. Her very powerful groundstrokes were quite revolutionary in women’s tennis. At 13, she won the junior events at Roland-Garros, and she turned pro the next year, in 1990, before even turning 14. In March, she reached the final of her first WTA tournament, in Boca Raton, only defeated by world No 2 Gabriela Sabatini (6-4, 7-5). Already world No 24, Capriati then became the youngest player to ever reach the final four at Roland-Garros, where she eliminated world No 8 Mary Joe Fernandez, before losing to Monica Seles (6-2, 6-2). Defeated in the US Open fourth round by world No 1, Steffi Graf (6-1, 6-1), she was already ranked No 11 in the world. In 1991 and 1992, Jennifer Capriati kept rising, reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, and clinching the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona (defeating Steffi Graf, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4). Unfortunately, she then struggled to handle the pressure put on her shoulders by the media, and in 1994, she even quit tennis temporarily and went through personal issues (she was arrested for shop lifting and drug possession).

Jennifer Capriati, Roland-Garros, 2001
Jennifer Capriati after winning Roland-Garros in 2001

Back on the tour in 1996, she didn’t achieve any remarkable results until the 2000 Australian Open, where she reached the semi-finals. This was the start of a new career: from then on, Capriati did not leave the top 10, claiming two Grand Slam titles in 2001 (the Australian Open and Roland-Garros). In October that year, Capriati became world No 1, and in 2002, she managed to defend her title at the Australian Open after a miracle win against Martina Hingis in the final (4-6, 7-6, 6-2). At the start of 2003, she was world No 3.

  • Marlene Weingartner, solid German contender

Marlene Weingartner, a German player born in 1980, had never confirmed the potential she had shown in the junior category, reaching the final of three Grand Slam tournaments. Since she began playing on the main Tour, in 1993, she never reached the final of a WTA tournament, and her best Grand Slam performance was reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open in 2002 (lost to Amélie Mauresmo, 6-0, 4-6, 7-5). After having reached world No 36 in 2002, she was world No 90 at the start of 2003.

The place: Australian Open, Melbourne

Unlike the other Grand Slam tournaments, The Australian Open (first known as the Australasian Championships and, later, the Australian Championships) had moved several locations throughout the years. In fact, the event switched cities every year before it settled in Melbourne in 1972, and no less than five Australian cities had hosted the event at least three times: Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. The event was held on grass at the Kooyong Stadium, in an affluent eastern suburb of Melbourne. Its timing had changed several times as well, between early December and January, going from being the first Grand Slam of the year to being the last. Until 1982, many of the best players skipped the Australian Open, mainly because of the remoteness, and the low prize money, but then, with the triumph of Mats Wilander, the dynamic changed. The tournament’s board made big efforts to become as prestigious as the other Grand Slams, which ended up with the event moving to a new location in 1988, in Flinders Park (later known as Melbourne Park), switching from grass to hard courts, and displaying the first-ever center court equipped with a retractable roof. Prizes increased as well, and it wasn’t long before the tournament became many players’ favourite Grand Slam.

The facts

At the 2003 Australian Open, when Jennifer Capriati, the double defending champion and world No 3, faced Marlene Weingartner in the first round, no expert in the world would have thought that she was going to face any trouble. The German’s greatest achievement on the Tour had been reaching the fourth round here, in Melbourne, twelve months before, and in their only previous encounter, in Charleston, in 2001, Capriati had easily prevailed, 6-0, 6-2.

At first, it looked like the world No 3 was cruising towards an easy win, taking the first set, 6-2, and taking a 4-2 lead in the second set. However, Weingartner, who had never played on the Center Court of a major tournament before, didn’t give up, and as she increase her level, Capriati’s game became more and more erratic. She clinched the second set, 7-6.

Down 2-1 in the deciding set, the reigning champion took a toilet break, but it didn’t help her retrieving her game. While Weingartner fully took her chances, the American made an unusual number of double faults and unforced errors. Finally, defeated 6-4 in the last set, Capriati became the first female defending champion to leave the Australian Open in the opening round.

“It took a few minutes to realise that I’d won,” said Weingartner after her win, according to the BBC. “I’ve worked so hard for the last couple of months, I just went out there and went for it.”

However, in her press conference, Capriati gave an explanation to her poor performance: after having undergone eye surgery at the end of the previous season, which had kept her away from the courts for several weeks, she didn’t have time to fully prepare for the Australian Open.

“Probably if I wasn’t the defending champion I wouldn’t have shown up. I’m not trying to make excuses but I have to say it had a lot to do with my preparation,” said Capriati, quoted by The Guardian. “The recovery time from surgery just wasn’t enough. She (Weingartner) just got on a roll there. I just felt the momentum swing and mentally and physically I wasn’t strong enough, I guess.”

What next

Marlene Weingartner would reach the third round of the 2003 Australian Open, defeated by Virginia Ruano (6-1, 4-6, 6-4). In 2004, in Bali, she would reach the only final of her career, defeated by Svetlana Kuznetsova (6-1, 6-4). She would retire as early as 2005, after having suffered from various injuries.

Reaching the semi-finals in three additional major tournaments, Capriati would remain a top 10 players until 2004, when she would retire from professional tennis due to shoulder injury. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t attend the Australian Open that year and her first-round loss against Weingartner would remain her last appearance at Melbourne Park.

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