Capriati has every reason to be up Down Under

Friday, January 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Jennifer Capriati began her startling run to No. 1 at the Australian Open. A repeat victory in this Grand Slam event wouldn't be a surprise.

And she has some help along the way.

Capriati is seeded first in the tournament, which starts Monday, because Lindsay Davenport pulled out with a knee injury.

That means Capriati won't confront the big-hitting Williams sisters or Martina Hingis until the final because they're all in the other half of the draw.

For Andre Agassi, the defending men's champion, the draw was not so kind. Agassi, vying for a third consecutive Australian title, opens against a qualifier. But if he's to reach the final, he can expect matches against Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras _ who has 13 Grand Slam titles _ and top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt.

Ninth-seeded Marat Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion, and 19th-seeded Jan-Michael Gambill also are in his quarter.

Agassi and Sampras were to meet Saturday in the final of an exhibition.

Since Capriati won her first Grand Slam title at Melbourne, she added a second major at the French, then rose to the No. 1 ranking before ending the year at No. 2.

So much has changed for Capriati, and not even a hip injury in Sydney this week puts her at great disadvantage. It seems all the top women are injured.

Davenport is out for at least four months after undergoing surgery on her right knee. Serena Williams turned her right ankle and quit during a semifinal in Sydney on Friday. Hingis was weakened by the heat and had sore legs while winning against Kim Clijsters. Clijsters had her own troubles _ she said she had nerve problems in her right arm.

All but Davenport were confident of being fit by the start of the Australian Open, including Serena Williams.

``It's looking really positive for me _ I definitely think this (injury) isn't going to stop me,'' Serena Williams said.

Older sister Venus, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion shoe is seeded second, is the one top five player without a new ailment. She won the WTA event in Australia this month and then took time off to rest.

Hingis has the toughest assignment, a repeat of what she faced to reach last year's final. She faces a probable quarterfinal against Serena Williams and a semifinal against Venus before a possible rematch with Capriati.

``It's quite reasonable,'' she said of Friday's draw. ``It is pretty similar _ the advance rounds _ but I just think one step at a time.''

Hingis is returning from a three-month layoff with an ankle injury. During that time she lost the No. 1 ranking after 73 consecutive weeks.

She is intent on adding to her five Grand Slam singles trophies. She won the Australian Open from 1997-99, but hasn't won a Grand Slam title since.

Capriati's breakthrough last January capped a stunning comeback after a tumultuous decade. She tumbled after reaching the semifinals at the 1990 French Open at 14 and winning an Olympic gold medal in 1992.

Besides winning the Australian Open and the French Open, she made the semis at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She was upset in the second round in Sydney last week to qualifier Alexandra Stevenson.

``I'm looking forward to starting all over,'' she said. ``But I don't want to get ahead of myself. ... I'll put pressure on myself that way.''

But Hingis offers this warning: ``If you're at the top, everyone is going to try to beat you.''

The men's championship is wide open.

Hewitt has been sidelined since the Hopman Cup with chicken pox. He won the last U.S. Open but has never advanced past the fourth round at Melbourne.

He's changed his approach this year, keeping a low profile. He's played only one exhibition, a win against Todd Martin on Friday before about 250 people in Melbourne.

He's the first homegrown top-seeded player since 1976. That was the last year an Australian _ Mark Edmondson _ won the tournament.

Second-seeded Gustavo Kuerten has a groin injury but got a reasonably good draw. He is on the same side as No. 4 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, No. 5 Sebastien Grosjean, No. 6 Tim Henman and No. 10 Goran Ivanisevic.