Youth served, as Capriati eliminates Navratilova

July 04, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

WIMBLEDON, England -- All Martina Navratilova could see was 15 and fearless, this kid with the bouncing French-braided ponytail and the baggy culottes.

Navratilova floated chip shots and short-armed serves, and the kid just swung from the hips and landed shots at the lines. The tension stretched across two sets and two days, Navratilova struggling, the kid charging, tennis sliding into another era.

"Rookies don't know about pressure," Navratilova said. "The pressure builds up the older you get. Even though you don't have that many more years left, things mean a lot more."

Yesterday at Wimbledon they completed this wonderful generational struggle on Centre Court. There was Navratilova, 34, the defending champion, a nine-time Wimbledon titlist, serving one last double fault and losing to Jennifer Capriati, 6-4, 7-5, in the women's quarterfinals.

It was history come to life on a scarred grass court. Capriati, 15 years and 96 days, becoming the youngest Wimbledon semifinalist, earning a match against Gabriela Sabatini, a 6-2, 6-1, winner over Laura Gildemeister. The other semifinal pairs Steffi Graf and Mary Joe Fernandez.

For the first time since 1981, they will hold a Wimbledon final without Navratilova. She once owned Centre Court, the greatest serve-and-volley women's player in history. But through the years, Navratilova discovered it was tougher and tougher to defend her turf.

She outlasted Tracy Austin and Chris Evert, and she outhit Graf. Finally, out popped this kid Capriati, who was 2 years old in 1978, the year Navratilova won her first Wimbledon.

"Age doesn't have anything to do with it," Navratilova said. "If I get nervous playing the younger kids, I'd be nervous every match."

Capriati shoved the legend around on Centre Court, taking the first set and falling behind a break at 2-3 in the second before rain stopped play Tuesday night.

Navratilova went to her Wimbledon home, ate takeout Chinese food and watched highlights of the match. Capriati enjoyed a barbecue dinner with her family.

"I was really excited," Capriati said. "I was having trouble going asleep. I was so anxious, but I wasn't really nervous."

The players returned to Centre Court, and the kid nearly ran the table. Not even the scheduled appearance of the Princess of Wales could keep Capriati out on the court.

"Actually, they told me that she would be there about 1:50 p.m., and it was 1 o'clock, and I said, 'Well, I hope I won't be able to see her. Hopefully, the match will be over,' " Capriati said.

Twenty-seven minutes after hitting the court, it was over. Navratilova served her fifth double fault into the net and a smile broke wide on Capriati's face as she waved to her parents, Stefano and Denise.

Then, bedlam. A standing ovation from the Royal Box. Capriati's parents walking out of the stadium and passing by a thicket of reporters. Security men clearing a path to the stadium for the Princess of Wales.

"I'm not surprised," Stefano Capriati yelled. "Jennifer has trained so hard. She wants to win. She deserves to be in the center."

Capriati has been at the center of tennis since her debut as a 14-year-old last year. She was the Chris Evert wannabe, who came packaged with ground strokes and a smile.

A sophomore slump left her No. 9 in the rankings. Still, this was supposed to be her year of discovery, her body growing, her game improving, her experience expanding.

"I'm not in a hurry," she said. "I'm not frustrated. I'm patient. I've got plenty of time."

Capriati talked like a kid during the post-match interview, 35 "uhms" and 34 "you knows" punctuating 10 minutes of conversation.

"I thought, 'I can't believe it,' " said Capriati. "I thought I played my best tennis and I'm really happy."

Capriati said she felt no pressure in the second set.

"No one expected me to win, and I just went out there and just played," she said. "I had no nerves, and she had everything to lose, I guess. At the end, though, when it was the last game, n nTC couldn't believe I was getting a little nervous. I was getting the chills. I couldn't believe it."

Navratilova tried to calmly analyze what went wrong after the match. Her serve, restyled for Wimbledon, was brittle, then broken. Her nerves were frayed. Finally, when asked how she felt about losing the match, she cried.

"I hope the gods are with me so I can come back next year," she said. "I'm not hanging it up. I still feel that I have some really good tennis in me. I don't know how much of the heart is left."

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