10,254 at Arena glimpse the future of women's tennis Seles tops Capriati in exhibition match

November 28, 1990|By Bill Glauber

They are teen-agers with matching ponytails, matching smiles and, perhaps, matching destinies.

Jennifer Capriati is 14, the high school freshman groomed and marketed to become the next Chris Evert. Monica Seles is 16, a two-fisted Yugoslav baseline fighter who has smashed her way into the No. 2 spot in the women's tennis rankings.

Last night, they held center stage at the Baltimore Arena in the First National Bank Tennis Festival. For one hour, they slugged it out in an exhibition that provided a sneak preview of the future of the women's game.

"It's fun to watch a match when people hit the ball hard," Seles said.

By that standard, the match was a rousing success. Seles outhit Capriati, 6-4, 6-2. But the biggest winner of all was charity, as the event, organized by Pam Shriver, attracted 10,254 spectators. More than $200,000 was raised for Children's Hospital, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Greater Baltimore Tennis Patrons Association.

"It was an unbelievable crowd," Shriver said. "I'm pretty sure it's the biggest crowd to ever see a tennis event in Baltimore."

The crowd was treated to equal parts comedy and athletic power. The evening began with the unusual sight of Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken waving a tennis racket. After practicing for one week, Ripken made his tennis debut with Shriver in a celebrity doubles match against Elise Burgin and basketball legend Julius Erving. Burgin and Erving won, 3-2 (8-6 tie-breaker), but it was Ripken who may have discovered a new off-season passion.

"I agreed to play having never played before," Ripken said. "Tennis was always in the wrong season for me. But when Pam asked me to play, I had to. I practiced all week. I even let Jim Palmer beat me in a match."

Ripken admitted he had stage fright, but said he was delighted to play.

"I was very nervous, and I'm not ashamed to say that," Ripken said. "I felt like it was Opening Day. Pam told me, if the ball isn't on my side, get out of the way. I followed orders."

Seles and Capriati played to form. Although she finished 1990 ranked No. 2 behind Steffi Graf on the women's computer, Seles was arguably the top player on the tour. She won the French Open title and took the season-ending Virginia Slims title in a five-set marathon over Gabriela Sabatini.

"I'm very happy with how I did this year," Seles said. "Getting to No. 1 will be hard, a huge step to make. If I could stay at No. 2 the whole year, maybe in 1992, I could make it to No. 1."

Capriati also engaged in a whirlwind season. As a 13-year-old, she made her professional debut and reached the final at the Virginia Slims of Florida. Capriati was a quarterfinalist at the Italian Open and became the youngest Grand Slam semifinalist when she lost to Seles at the French Open.

Capriati led the United States to victory in the Federation Cup in July and won her first pro title in October, defeating Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison at the Puerto Rican Open.

She ended the year No. 8 on the women's computer -- with a bullet.

"Next year, I hope to maybe get up to the top five," Capriati said. "Of course, I'd like to be No. 1. But I have to do a lot before that happens."

Seles and Capriati said their success will spur other teen-agers to push for spots on the women's tour.

"Maybe little kids will watch us, and say, if they're young, maybe we'll do the same thing," Seles said. "I don't want to pressure them into a feeling that they have to do that. It will be hard to do what Jennifer did. I came on tour pretty young. Now, at age 25, people on tour are called old. But they're really young. If I had a child, 14 would be the right age."

Capriati, who was overpowered by Seles, said her older rival gives her inspiration and hope as she attempts to climb the rankings.

"Monica has done great," Capriati said. "She has done so much. It helps me. It makes me work harder to do the same thing."

Shriver said she will have to work hard to top this year's event. During its first five years, the Tennis Festival has raised more than $800,000 for Baltimore area charities. Shriver has attracted top male players, Soviet stars, Evert and Martina Navratilova, and two teen idols, moving the event from Loyola College to Towson State, and finally, the Baltimore Arena.

"I just hope tennis keeps producing the kind of stars who can bring in a new show," she said. "We hope to get lucky next year."

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