Tennis' teen queens to collide

November 25, 1990|By Don Markus

The worlds in which Jennifer Capriati lives are represented by the two watches she wears on her left wrist. One is a solid gold and diamond-studded Rolex, gleaming like the 14-year-old herself. The other, brightly colored with the MTV logo on it, seems a bit more suitable.

They are worlds that, on the surface, seem galaxies apart. But on the Women's International Tennis Association tour, they are worlds that are bound to collide nearly every single day. Not only for Capriati, but also for many of the top-ranked women players.

On Tuesday, those worlds and two of their most celebrated occupants will come to Baltimore for a one-night stay.

Capriati, ranked eighth in the WITA computer, and Monica Seles, 16, ranked second, will be the featured performers in the fifth First National Bank Tennis Festival. The event will be held for the first time at the Baltimore Arena, beginning at 7 p.m.

It will give tennis fans in this area a glimpse at one of the sport's blossoming rivalries. The meeting here will be only the second of their professional careers; Seles defeated Capriati, 6-2, 6-2, in the semifinals of this year's French Open before going on to beat Steffi Graf for the championship.

"I didn't expect a lot of what's happened so far," said Capriati, whose arrival on the tour in March was perhaps the most publicized since Tracy Austin's debut more than a decade ago. "I'm kind of surprised by it. I'm glad it's happened."

Capriati, who signed a package deal of endorsements worth an estimated $5 million before playing in her first pro tournament, apparently has handled the pressure well. She reached the finals at tournaments in Hilton Head, S.C., and Boca Raton, Fla., played in two other semifinals and won an event in Puerto Rico last month, beating then-fourth-ranked Zina Garrison for the championship.

The victory over Garrison, which enabled Capriati to play in the Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago, showed that she not only was capable of competing at this level, but also of winning as well. It certainly turned a lot of heads among the tennis cognoscenti, but it barely moved Capriati.

"The only difference is that I won," she said. "It was great that I could finally do it."

"Her goal is to improve every week," said Stefano Capriati, Jennifer's father and coach. "Of course, when she was in the juniors, she won most of the time. But it doesn't change anything. She doesn't play with pressure -- yet."

There is the delicate balance that most of these burgeoning stars walk every day, the line of demarcation that separates those who are expecting to win and those who are only hoping. Capriati came close to crossing that line at the Garden, when she nearly upset the top-ranked Graf in an opening-round match.

"It was probably better for Jennifer that she didn't beat Steffi so soon, because the expectations for her would have been unreasonable," said one veteran player who was there that night. "It would have been like what happened to Michael Chang winning the French Open a couple of years ago."

For Seles, the moment came last year, at the Virginia Slims of Houston, when she beat Chris Evert for the first time. Seles was not yet 16, and her career has rocketed since, culminating with six straight titles in one stretch this year and nine overall. Among those victories was a French Open championship and last week's Virginia Slims Championships.

"I think I have had a great year," said Seles, who has earned more than $1.6 million in prize money to go along with more than $4 million in endorsements. "I've had a couple of disappointing losses that I'd rather forget, but I'm going to work harder not to have those."

While her ranking has moved up steadily -- she overtook an injured Martina Navratilova to move to No. 2 behind a struggling Graf -- Seles also has been able to market herself by becoming more Americanized. She has moved from Yugoslavia to Sarasota, Fla.

"It was more that she wanted to fit in," said Seles' agent, Stephanie Tolleson of International Management Group. "She likes it here."

Capriati is still very much the wide-eyed teen-ager off the court, but there is a touch of worldliness to Seles that belies her age (17 next Sunday). Tolleson, who played the tour briefly during the late 1970s, said Seles is part of a new breed who are as aware of their portfolio as they are of their opponents.

"She's so professional, so mature about her business deals," said Tolleson.

With the growth in endorsement contracts and prize money has come a lost innocence. When Austin and Andrea Jaeger came out as prodigies in the late '70s, each was accompanied only by a parent and coach. Now there are entourages, which can include personal trainers and psychologists.

"I think the game has become big business, big entertainment," said Tolleson. "When I came out, many of the players were overweight. They didn't know about weight training. Now, the players realize how much they stand to gain or lose."

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