WIMBLEDON, England -- The schoolgirl did not choke. She had to be pushed swinging and grunting out of Wimbledon yesterday. She wouldn't leave Centre Court. Not with the Royal Box filling up and the crowd roaring and Gabriela Sabatini sweating out a tense semifinal.
Four times, Jennifer Capriati stared down match point, hanging on in rallies and belting winners, making Sabatini work overtime and aim for the lines.
Finally, the nerveless 15-year-old smacked a backhand into the net, and Sabatini punched the air and the crowd stood. Capriati held back tears, trying to recall all that was wonderful about this historic Wimbledon.
"I have great memories," Capriati said. "I'm just going to leave knowing that I beat a great champion and that I got to the semifinals."
One day after defeating nine-time champion Martina Navratilova in the quarterfinals, Capriati lost against Sabatini, 6-4, 6-4. It was hardly a disgrace. It was simply too much too ask history's youngest Wimbledon semifinalist to put together back-to-back wins against the past and present of women's tennis.
When the Wimbledon final is held tomorrow it will be Sabatini against two-time champion Steffi Graf, a 6-2, 6-4 winner over Mary Joe Fernandez. The Sabatini-Graf pairing appeared inevitable after the pre-tournament pull-out of Monica Seles, the reigning Australian and French Open champion.
But it was Capriati who brought the magic to the women's event. The culottes she wore and the French braids in her hair were nice touches. But it was her monstrous ground strokes that dethroned Navratilova, and it was her unaffected exuberance that charmed the crowds.
"I think [the attention] is great and all," Capriati said. "I'm excited about it. I guess I'm pretty famous in the States, but I really don't let it get to me. I really don't think about it. I'm still just a normal kid. I don't think about all the fame and stuff. I think I'm lucky."
The victory over Navratilova pushed her closer to the top of the women's game. But she's still a kid, after all, and she had trouble sleeping before her next match.
"People were not letting me concentrate and relax," she said. "I had a lot of interviews and people saying, 'Good job.' I was constantly saying, 'Thank you, thank you.' I didn't sleep too much because I was so excited, and I was trying to get it out of my head. I was saying, 'Gosh, I have to play a different person. I've got to forget about it [beating Navratilova.].' But I just couldn't."
Still, Capriati stood toe-to-toe with Sabatini, an elegant stylist who has elevated her game with --es of baseline power and volleying fury.
"I think Jennifer is very mature," Sabatini said. "She is very smart, even though she is very young. She has a very good mentality."
It wasn't a pretty match. There were five service breaks for Sabatini and three for Capriati, but there were also long, beautiful stretches at the baseline, the players lunging and pushing one another from side to side. And there were all those match points, the ones Capriati shoved aside with a grunt and smash.
"Jennifer plays with a lot of courage," Capriati's coach Tom Gullickson said. "Maybe it's innocence more than courage. She is always trying to hit huge shots at big moments."
A gap remains between Capriati and the top three -- Graf, Sabatini and Seles -- but it is closing quickly. The phenom at 14 has turned into a contender at 15.
"No one can really pick a timetable for Jennifer," Gullickson said. "Graf and Sabatini and Seles are still a cut above everyone else. Of all the rest of the players from Martina on down, Jennifer has the game and the potential to threaten being No. 1."
Fernandez also looms as a future threat. But on grass against Graf, she was outmuscled from the baseline.
"Steffi didn't make many mistakes and she was very aggressive," Fernandez said. "She hit the first ball she got and I was under pressure right away. She returned well and it was tough for me to attack her."
Graf, who is playing as if on a mission, has lost only 24 games in six matches. Still, she has lost in her last five meetings to Sabatini, including the 1990 U.S. Open final.
"I think I am relaxed," Graf said. "I have to prove that I can play better than some players."
Graf plays better than most, of course. She's the Grand Slam champion looking to recapture a title. This year at Wimbledon, she meets Sabatini. But waiting in the wings is the kid with a forehand and a smile.
"I think I'm getting closer every match," Capriati said. "This definitely gives me a lot of confidence to come back next year and do better."
By then, she'll be sweet sixteen, looking for her first Wimbledon title.