October, 15, 2001: The day Jennifer Capriati became world No 1 for the first time

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 2001 to witness how 25-year-old Jennifer Capriati finally became world No 1, 11 years after her record-breaking beginnings on the WTA Tour

Jennifer Capriati, On this day 15.10.2001

What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, October 15 in 2001, Jennifer Capriati reached the top of the WTA rankings for the first time. The former prodigy, who, at the age of 14, had become the youngest player of all time to enter the top 10 and to reach the Roland-Garros semi-finals, had managed to come back from oblivion after having left the sport in the middle of the 1990s. In 2001, she had triumphed at both the Australian Open and Roland-Garros and had been getting closer and closer to the top.

The player: Jennifer Capriati

  • Jennifer Capriati: Teen prodigy to burnout to two-time Grand Slam champion

Jennifer Capriati was born in March 1976 in Long Island, New York. In 1986 her family moved to Florida, where, under the guidance of Chris Evert’s father, Jimmy, she became a real tennis prodigy. Her powerful groundstrokes were quite revolutionary in women’s tennis. At the age of 13, she won the junior events at Roland-Garros and turned pro the next year, in 1990 even before she turned 14.

In March, she reached the final of her first WTA tournament in Boca Raton, only to be defeated by world No 2 Gabriela Sabatini 6-4, 7-5. Already holding the 24th position in the WTA rankings, Capriati went on to 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, the result moved to to the brink of the top 10 (No 11).

In 1991 and 1992, Capriati kept rising and reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open in addition to winning the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona (defeated Graf 3-6, 6-3, 6-4). Unfortunately, she then struggled to deal with the pressure put on her young shoulders by the media, and in 1994, she even quit tennis temporarily after being burnt out and went through a difficult time on the personal front (she was arrested for shoplifting and drug possession). Back on the tour in 1996, Capriati 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, and in 2001, Capriati claimed two consecutive Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open and Roland-Garros. 

The facts: Hingis loss paves the way for Capriati to become No 1

In October 2001, after she had won the first two Grand Slams of the season, Capriati was an obvious contender for the world No 1 spot, which had been occupied by Martina Hingis, without interruption, since May 2000. No one had one won at Melbourne and Paris in the same year since Monica Seles in 1992, and after her epic final won against Kim Clijsters in Paris (1-6, 6-4, 12-10), some even began to discuss if she could win the calendar Grand Slam. However, Capriati was defeated in the semi-finals at both Wimbledon (by Justine Henin, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2) and at the US Open (by Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-2). Nonetheless, thanks to those results she climbed as high No 2 in the world, and at the start of the Filderstadt Open (held from October 8 to October 14), she was very close to reaching the top spot. In order for Hingis to stay at No 1, the Swiss had to win the tournament. The Swiss, however, was forced to retire in the semi-finals due to a foot injury and Capriati was then assured to become world No 1 the following week despite her own loss to Sandrine Testud in the quarter-finals.

On Monday, October 15, 2001, more than a decade after having become the youngest player to ever reach the Roland-Garros semi-finals, Jennifer Capriati finally became world No 1. During that time, her career had gone through several ups and downs. Following her triumph at the French Open, she had already said how much she appreciated her recent achievements, in an interview published by Sports Illustrated

“I never thought I’d be standing here 11 years later, after playing my first time here when I was 14 years old. Really, I’m just waiting to wake up from this dream.”

Reaching the top spot after having reached rock bottom made it feel even better, as she explained, according to The Globe and Mail:

“I think you appreciate it more when you’re older. I’m also proud to come back from everything that has happened in my life and just enjoy tennis and play this well. I think this shows everybody that it’s never too late to realize your talent and your dreams.”

“For whatever reason, it wasn’t supposed to happen back then,” Capriati also told sportswriter Juan C. Rodriguez, “and I would have to say it’s definitely been a unique journey for me, unique story, I think, for everyone.”

What next? A third Grand Slam and a return to No 1 for Capriati

The same week, in her first tournament as world No 1, Capriati would be defeated in the semi-finals by Lindsay Davenport 6-1, 5-7, 6-2. On top of that, on November 5, Davenport would take over the top spot and would prevent Capriati from finishing the year as world No 1.

In 2002, Capriati would add a third Grand Slam title to her list of achievements, saving four match points to defeat Martina Hingis in the Australian Open final 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. Capriati would remain world No 1 for 17 weeks in total, but Serena Williams would soon begin dominating the women’s tour. Serena defeated her sister, Venus, in the final of the next four Grand Slam tournaments. Reaching the semi-finals in four more Grand Slam events, Capriati would remain a top 10 players until 2004, when she would retire from professional tennis due to a shoulder injury. She would be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.

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