For 19 months, Kenneth Carlsen wasn’t aching to pick up a racket. From September 1999, the Dane was cherishing his time off the rigid schedules of the tour after two major shoulder surgeries.

News photoAmerican Jill Craybas returns a shot during her victory
in the AIG Japan Open final at Tokyo’s Ariake
Colosseum. Craybas beat Croatia’s Silvija Talaja 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

It’s been 16 months since the 10-year veteran returned to the full tour — and he knew he wasn’t playing well. But on Sunday at Ariake Colosseum, Carlsen’s game came together at the perfect time for his second trophy — both of them in Asia — as he edged friend Magnus Norman of Sweden 7-6 (8-6), 6-3 to clinch the men’s bracket of the AIG Japan Open, which included world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and two other Top-10 players.

“For me, it’s incredible,” said No. 99-ranked Carlsen, who won $115,000. “I hadn’t been playing well for the last couple of months. I’ve been playing bad. And then, suddenly, everything comes together here.

“I didn’t expect this at all. Maybe this is as big a surprise for me as it is for you.”

In the women’s final, no one could’ve written a better script for American Jill Craybas. The 28-year-old former NCAA champion dropped the first five games of the match in a record-setting pace of 12 minutes to Croatia’s Silvija Talaja, but finished the day with her first WTA title by beating an injury-plagued Talaja 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

“I don’t think there are words to describe how I felt because I’ve worked so hard in gaining confidence and believing in myself,” said Craybas, who had only won two satellite tour titles before Sunday but went home went home $27,000 richer. “Today, when it came to crunch time, I think I just really believed in myself.”

Carlsen, who notched 11 aces, broke Norman in the second set with a 4-3 lead and served out for the title.

Norman was a bit harsh on himself after failing to convert on a break point at 2-2 in the second set. He made several groundstroke errors and, after Carlsen ended up holding his serve, the Swede furiously swung his racket to the ground like a broom.

“What can I say? I lost to a guy who played pretty good,” said Norman, a qualifier who played his eighth match of the event. “He didn’t make many mistakes.”

Norman, who took a dive in the rankings from No. 2 to his current No. 120, had his own comeback story prepared after a serious hip injury threatened to end his career last year.

“I hope this is a good start to a second career,” Norman said. “I hope I get a chance to be healthy for the rest of my career.”

Carlsen, who won his first title in Hong Kong in 1998, said playing in Asia has brought out the best in him. The time off the courts gave him a chance to ponder his life.

“You put everything into perspective when you get injured,” he said. “Before, going into a match was like life-or-death. Now, I’m a little more relaxed about it. I was away from tennis 19 months and I survived. I didn’t die. I had a good time.”

In the women’s final matching a pair of low-profile players, Craybas dropped 12 of the first 14 points against the hard-hitting Talaja, who was playing in her first Tour final since January of 2000.

Helped by Craybas’ stroke errors, Talaja took the first set in 23 minutes. But in the second, Craybas started to play like a finalist.

It helped Craybas that Talaja’s game slowed down after twisting her left ankle, which was the same leg in which the Croat tore her Achilles tendon in July 2001. She needed to wrap the ankle during an injury timeout.

In doubles, the South African tandem of Jeff Coetzee and Chris Haggard took the men’s title over Americans Jan-Michael Gambill and Graydon Oliver 7-6 (7-4), 6-4.

The Japanese pair of Shinobu Asagoe and Nana Miyagi won the women’s doubles late Saturday.

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