Seles to meet Capriati

Two-time US Open winner Monica Seles will lock horns with Jennifer Capriati in a showdown that promises to rock Arthur Ashe Stadium to its foundations Monday, following a breezy third round victory Saturday night over Ai Sugiyami.

“I was lucky that I broke her straight back tonight and I’m happy that I won in two,” said Seles, the tournament’s fourth seed, who utilized her unique-brand of baseline firepower to easily dispose of Sugiyami to the tune of 6-2, 6-3. The Yugoslavian-born Floridian has yet to lose to a set to Sugiyama in five meetings.

Seles’ 61-minute trouncing of her Japanese opponent in the first match of the evening session set up a ninth career meeting with Capriati, and the first in over three years.

Seles and Capriati, two of the Open’s most popular players, are also the sentimental favorites, and the very thought of a Seles-Capriati showdown has fans licking their lips in anticipation at the feast of slugfest-style tennis that might very well transcend Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday.

And if their last gripping encounter here eight years ago was anything to go by, spectators would be well advised to fasten their seatbelts and enjoy the Stadium ride.

The then 17-year-old Seles won that match, the 1991 semifinal — hailed as one of the best women’s singles matches of all time — in a gut-wrenching third set tiebreak. Never before had tennis fans seen two women hit the ball as hard. Seles went on to win her first US title, defeating 34-year-old Martina Navratilova in the final.

Even defending women’s champion Lindsay Davenport, still in tennis booties at the time, remembers the semifinal spectacle.

“I was there playing in the juniors. I remember watching it from my hotel in the city. It was great. I’ve seen replays of it, they show it on the Classic Sports Network. Everyone’s hoping to see that again,” said Davenport.

Says Capriati: “It stuck with me for a while, that match. That was one of my best.”

“It will be fantastic that we get a chance to play after so many years. It’s great to see her come back, not just in tennis but in life. When I finish my career, it’s probably a match that I’ll watch again on video,” said Seles.

Seles’ and Capriati’s careers have since traveled uncanningly similar paths.

Seles had won eight Grand Slams by the age of 19, before a deranged fan stabbed her in the back during a tournament in Hamburg, short-circuiting what pundits can only assume would have been an unprecedented string of Grand Slam titles.

She recovered from the two-year emotional rollercoaster ride to return to the game in 1995, reaching the final of the US Open, her first Grand Slam since the incident. Seles was to win one more Grand Slam, the Australian Open in 1996, and reach three more finals (including here in 95 and 96), but has since failed in her attempts to scale the dizzy heights of years past.

Capriati’s pro tennis career, which began at the tender age of 13, and saw her ranking rise to inside the top 10 by the age of 14, has also been sadly smudged by a series of failed comebacks, and a stream of well-documented parent problems and brushes with the law.

Now all grown up, giggle-free, reflective, and even mellow, Seles and Capriati, at the ripe old ages of 25 and 23 respectively, will cross paths again. Seles leads the battle 5-3. It will be Seles’ ninth US Open appearance and Capriati’s eighth.

Thankfully, it won’t be their last.