Capriati was beaten in three sets by Germany’s Marlene Weingartner, the world number 90, losing a see-sawing encounter 2-6, 7-6 (8/6), 6-4 in 1hr 49min on the Rod Laver Arena.
It was a sorry end for third seed Capriati. While praising Weingartner’s performance, she blamed her defeat on eye surgery she underwent during the off-season.
“My eyes felt okay but I would have to say the recovery time was not enough,” said Capriati, who had been chasing an Australian Open hat-trick.
“I didn’t give myself enough time to prepare properly and had I not been the defending champion I probably would not have showed up.”
Capriati was treated with laser surgery after the season-ending championships in Los Angeles for a condition which gave her blurred vision.
“I’m not trying to make excuses but I have to say that it affected my preparations for this tournament,” said Capriati.
Weingartner, 23, was ecstatic after the biggest win of her career.
“It took a few minutes to realise that I’d won. I’ve worked so hard for the last couple of months, I just went out there and went for it,” she said. “This is special. I have never played on centre court in a Grand Slam before.”
Capriati looked to be cruising into the second round after racing away with the first set against her nervous-looking opponent.
But inexplicably her game went to pieces in the second set, when her forehand superiority deserted her.
“She played well, hit some great shots. Physically, I felt a bit tired,” Capriati said. “But she got on a roll and I felt the momentum swing her way. Mentally and physically I just wasn’t good enough.”
While Capriati was left to lick her wounds there were no such problems for the other leading contenders.
Venus Williams shook out the rust from a few months off and Andre Agassi fired a warning shot to Lleyton Hewitt as the rest of the first round followed the form book.
Second-seed Williams fought back from 3-0 down in the first set before overwhelming Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 6-2. Thriving in sweltering conditions, Williams got stronger as the game progressed and came home comfortably.
“I think I’m doing well,” themsecond-seeded American superstar said after her win. “I just think that I’m just a little rusty going out there. At times I shined through, at times I was my old self. At other times I just had some errors coming.”
Williams said halting sister Serena’s charge towards a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title was not her driving motivation.
“I wouldn’t exactly say that’s my goal,” she said. “My goal is to be the best. I guess if Serena wins a Slam, then I’ll be there congratulating her.”
Agassi, meanwhile, indicated he is going to cause problems for top seed Hewitt, who is aiming to become the first Australian to win in Melbourne since Mark Edmondson in 1976.
Looking lean and sharp, and with wife Steffi Graf watching in the stands, second seed Agassi disposed of US compatriot Brian Vahaly with a minimum of fuss, winning 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.
“I felt nervous going out there today, it’s been a bit longer than I would have liked,” said Agassi, making his first appearance at the Australian Open for two years.
“My focus is not so much being ranked number one, but finishing number one at the end of a Grand Slam tournament.”
Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan had been given the honour of playing the opening match on the main court, and returned the favour by beating Austrian Jurgen Melzer 7-5, 6-4, 1-6, 6-0 in 2hr 18min.
The win set up a second round encounter with Australian Mark Philippoussis, who defeated the Netherlands’ Martin Verkerk 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5/7), 6-3.
Fifth seed Carlos Moya, regarded by many as a dark horse for the men’s crown, also got away smoothly, beating Belgium’s Dick Norman 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 despite having a sore elbow.
There were wins too for compatriot and fourth seed Juan Carlos Ferrero, who beat Franco Squillari, 7-6 (7/5), 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 and eighth seed Albert Costa, who defeated Germany’s David Prinosil in four sets.
In the women’s singles, hard-hitting Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, seeded five, overcame Switzerland’s Myriam Casanova 6-3, 6-4 in just over an hour.
Russian glamour-girl Anna Kournikova, meanwhile, snapped a sequence of four first round losses in her four last Grand Slams to reach the second round.
The Miami-based world number 42 was never challenged on her way to a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Slovakia’s Henrieta Nagyova. She now faces Henin-Hardenne in the second round tomorrow.