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Capriati to see Venus in Ericsson title match

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Jennifer Capriati survived a sometimes painful and always public adolescence, with each misstep chronicled in front-page headlines. She shrugged off the scrutiny, learned from her mistakes, persisted with her career and won abundant admiration by becoming a Grand Slam champion.

So she's not inclined to be fazed by Venus Williams.

They meet for the first time in four years Saturday in the final of the Ericsson Open.

"I'm not going to think, 'Oh, she's like this goddess,"' Capriati said. "Everyone kind of makes her seem that way. We will see when I go out there. She is just another player on the other side. I'm not going to have any fear, that's for sure."

The No. 4-seeded Capriati beat No. 7 Elena Dementieva 6-2, 6-0 Friday, setting the stage for the tournament's version of Super Saturday. With the schedule scrambled by a thunderstorm Thursday, the women's final will be followed by an intriguing men's semifinal between No. 3 Andre Agassi and No. 8 Patrick Rafter.

"Our history goes to show it is a good matchup," Agassi said. "You get to see incredible tennis played from all different parts of the court. Rafter is about the only serve-and-volleyer left and he does it with such style, it leads to some great exchanges."

The other finalist will be American Jan-Michael Gambill, who advanced by beating No. 7 Lleyton Hewitt 7-5, 6-4. Agassi earlier defeated Ivan Ljubicic 6-4, 6-4.

The women's tour is blessed with plenty of strong personalities, and these days Capriati and Williams the elder are the most assertive. Their only previous meeting occurred at the 1997 Key Biscayne tournament, when Williams was just 16 and Capriati was struggling to bounce back from drug and personal problems.

The two finalists have won the past three Grand Slam tournaments. Williams claimed the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles last year, and Capriati capped her heartwarming comeback in January by winning the Australian Open.

She has played well since, reaching the final at Oklahoma City and the semifinals at Scottsdale. Her record this year is 18-3.

"After the Australian win, I liked the feeling so much I wanted to keep it going and win as many as I can," Capriati said.

She's one of the few players who hits hard enough to match the power of the No. 3-seeded Williams, who clubbed 51 winners to beat No. 1 Martina Hingis on Thursday.

Dementieva posed little resistance against Capriati, her frequent practice partner. The Russian's forehand repeatedly sent shots sailing long, and Capriati showed her improved agility and fitness by chasing down the balls that landed in.

An example: She smacked a forehand in one corner, scrambled to retrieve a backhand in the other corner, then sprinted to the net to finish off the point.

"I'm playing the greatest I ever played," Capriati said. "I gain more confidence with each match."

She eliminated No. 5 Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, spoiling a potential all-Williams final and temporarily quelling the controversy about fixes matches between the sisters.

But Saturday's matchup is just as juicy.

Venus and Jennifer were both steered by their fathers as teen-age prodigies but took completely different paths to become champions. Williams did not play juniors tournaments and waited until age 17 to join the tour. Capriati turned pro at 13 and left the tour three years later, her career in shambles.

Are there lessons to be learned?

"I think Jennifer is an isolated case as far as what happened to her," Williams said. "Maybe she was tired. Maybe she decided, 'I'm going to lay off and play tennis a little later in life.' I don't think it was anything exactly so tragic."

Ah, this could be the start of a wonderful rivalry.