Seles, 16, and Capriati, 14, are coming of age in hurry

November 27, 1990|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

Women's tennis is nothing more than child's play. And there is little doubt when these little girls are good they are very, very good.

But one little girl, who likes to pull her hair back so tightly in a ponytail that there is little danger of a blond curl escaping in the middle of her forehead, also is very smart indeed.

Monica Seles has the credentials to be No. 1, if the Women's Tennis Association computer would only have a heart. But Seles is willing to take her time and be happy at No. 2, thereby keeping some of the pressure at bay for a little while, anyway.

"Just getting to be No. 2 is a bonus," Seles says of her position behind Steffi Graf. "I've had a great year, but Steffi deserves to be No. 1. She didn't lose in a first or second round of any tournament like I did."

There will not be any rounds tonight at 7 when the playground will be center court at the Baltimore Arena for the First National Bank Tennis Festival.

Seles, 16, will simply have to play Jennifer Capriati, the precocious 14-year-old who has jumped into the Top 10 of women's tennis at No. 8, in her first pro season.

The meeting is a charity match to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

"It may be for charity," said Seles, "but I do not go out to play like it is an exhibition match. I'll be focused. I think it is unfair to the spectators if you do not give your best."

Seles has been giving her best all season, and along the way she has grown from the giggling, sometimes unsure 15-year-old, into if not an adult age-wise, at least a tennis pro mentally.

"At the start of the season, I wasn't playing so well as I did later," she admits. "I think it started for me at the Lipton [the first of eight championships this season]. I started to play better and then better and better. And then I won the French, a Grand Slam, and my confidence grew.

"The biggest difference in me from, say, two years ago, is my confidence. I have so much confidence now."

By the time she won the French Open, she had already won five other tournaments and beaten Graf once. She made it two in a row when she beat her for the French crown.

Last week, she beat Gabriela Sabatini for the Virginia Slims Championship in New York.

And, lately, she has had her way with Martina Navratilova, too, beating her the last three times they've met. And it is Navratilova who she has replaced as No. 2 in the world.

She has done it all with power tennis, sometimes, seemingly, playing the simplest game of bullet forehands and backhands. Rallies, seemingly, relegated to history.

When Seles beat Navratilova in one of their first meetings, Martina said she could not recall anyone ever hitting the ball against her as hard as Seles.

"It was like something fired from a bazooka," she said. "I hate to think how hard she'll hit if she keeps growing."

Seles, despite a couple disappointing losses this season, including a third-round loss at the U.S. Open, does seem to be getting better all the time.

"Each time I go out, I am a little nervous," she says. "And I am also a little more excited. When you are No. 3 or No. 2 it is more difficult, because you're expected to go further.

"I will work hard at it, too. I need to improve more on my serve and need to get more comfortable on my volleys. I think I would like to serve and volley more. I think it is what I should do, because I am big and strong."

Perhaps, the 10,000-plus at the Arena tonight will see her working on her game. But the 14-year-old Capriati, who told Tennis magazine recently that she and Bart Simpson have a lot in common, also has an intimidating game of penetrating ground strokes, a 90-mph serve and brisk volleys.

"Bart's cool because he's like a lot of kids," Capriati said, while admitting she has seven Bart T-shirts. "He says all those things like 'man' and 'hey dude' and stuff."

This is only the second meeting between Seles and Capriati, but while Seles won the first meeting, 6-2, 6-2, Capriati is not giving away anything.

As Bart Simpson might say, and Capriati has, "Just because I'm some kid, doesn't mean they can bully me around."

Women's tennis is child's play, all right, but don't expect to see any children on the court.

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