Capriati, natch, shows Open, wow, is for kids, too

Ken Rosenthal

September 04, 1991|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- Jennifer, stop playing with that bottle top. Jennifer, stop rocking in that folding chair. Jennifer, stop tilting your head.

Jennifer!

All right girl, go ahead.

Continue your news conference.

This was last night, after Jennifer Capriati, 15, stayed up past her bedtime to like, really go for it against Gabriela Sabatini. She won 6-3, 7-6 (7-1), becoming the youngest U.S. Open semifinalist since Andrea Jaeger in 1980.

Uh Jennifer, what would it mean for you to win the Open?

"It would mean the world," she said.

And took a swig of bottled water.

This is Jimmy Connors' tournament, but now it's Capriati's too. The old man with the bum knee. The little girl saying, "Oh, gee." Any more slots open on CBS' fall schedule? The ratings would be, you know, totally awesome.

Capriati doesn't really talk like that -- not all the time -- but the most refreshing thing about her is that she'd rather play with bottle tops than act all weirded out like her semifinal opponent, Madonna -- er, Monica -- Seles.

It would be nice to say she came of age last night, but as 15-year-olds terrorize their parents worldwide, would it be a compliment? Besides, important as this victory was, it wasn't Capriati's biggest. Just ask that old lady, Martina Navratilova.

Capriati shocked Navratilova at Wimbledon, a shot of confidence if there ever was one. Before last night she was 1-6 lifetime against Sabatini, the defending Open champion. But she played with such verve at Louis Armstrong Stadium, no one would have guessed.

You had to love the way Capriati kept sneaking forward on Sabatini's second serve, like normal teen-agers would arriving home late from a date. "I wasn't planning on being obnoxious or annoying," she said. "I just wanted to intimidate her a little bit, show her I was going to attack her serve."

Now it's up to Seles, 17, to put the kid in her place -- or then maybe Steffi Graf, 22. Capriati, the seventh seed, actually could win this thing. Sabatini, 21, was seeded third, and she would have been dismissed sooner, except Capriati twice lost serve playing for the match.

Seles? She whipped Gigi Fernandez 6-1, 6-2 yesterday, and beat Capriati in their first two meetings but lost to her 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 in the final of the Mazda Tennis Classic Aug. 4. The following week Capriati won the

Canadian Open. In her first four matches of this tournament she lost only 11 games.

Does she think she can win?

"Mmm-hmm."

Translation?

"Yes."

Oh, she pressed trying to put away Sabatini, but under the big-city lights, that was understandable. Afterward Sabatini wondered if she has "the mentality" to endure Seles and then Graf. Capriati insisted, "I've come close. Now I want to go all the way."

For a second opinion, here's a real-live adult:

"Seles has won two Grand Slams this year -- she knows how to play these big matches," said Tom Gullikson, one of Capriati's coaches. "Jennifer was excited after playing Martina at Wimbledon. She let down playing Sabatini [and losing] in the semis.

"It wasn't a conscious thing. But Jennifer knows from her Wimbledon experience, let's enjoy this thing, let's enjoy it tonight. There's a lot of work left. Hopefully there are two matches to play. Enjoy this tonight, but after that it's business as usual."

Capriati isn't one to worry either way -- you wouldn't either, if you had earned nearly $650,000 before turning 16. She lists "Big," "Ghost," and "Pretty Woman" as her favorite movies. You expected "The Bridge on the River Kwai?"

Connors, 39, already was an Open champion when Capriati was born in 1976. If she wasn't so busy, she could play with his kids. Instead, she's starring on the same stage, fighting age discrimination from the opposite end of tennis' vast spectrum.

Someone asked what she'll be doing when she's 20 or 25, and she responded with her usual giggle and shrug -- "I don't know. Happy and healthy, I hope." Someone else asked about New York. Capriati said the Metropolitan Museum of Art was "pretty good." Natch, she also enjoys the shopping.

That was about all for the news conference.

No more bottle tops.

No more folding chairs.

No more questions.

Jennifer!

Time for bed.

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