Capriati takes more than passing shot at being average teen-ager

November 25, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Evening Sun Staff

The teen-ager enjoys solving problems in 10th-grade algebra class, hanging around a mall with friends and listening to Guns N' Roses while dancing in front of a mirror in the home her talent paid for.

The player travels the world accompanied by her parents, her coach, her agent and her tutor. She can't even get to a tennis court without the aid of security guards who leave behind a wake of screaming children and starry-eyed parents. She is a walking corporation, who has earned more in a year than most people will earn in a lifetime . . . or three.

Jennifer Capriati is a kid and a star. And yes, she still is a phenomenon, even the second time around. Here is the future of women's tennis playing in the present.

Capriati is 15 years old, coming off a second professional season in which she has earned $526,867 in prize money and $5 million in endorsements. But the numbers and the dollars leave her unimpressed.

"It's nice to have, but it's not what I play for," she said. "I play for the winning."

Tomorrow night, Capriati will meet Martina Navratilova at the Baltimore Arena in the First National Bank Tennis Festival presented by The Baltimore Sun. The exhibition is a pairing of the new vs. the old, one player two generations removed from the other.

Despite the demands of fame, the breathtaking rush of publicity and the sheer talent and personal commitment needed to sustain such a high-profile career, Capriati remains very much like any other 15-year-old. She'll bicker with her father, Stefano, one moment, but then patiently heed his counsel the next. She loves to shop. She is self conscious about having to wear her new horn-rimmed glasses, which she needed after failing an eye exam for a learner's permit.

Normal is the word Capriati uses to describe her childhood. Others might call it amazing. This is a teen who has a Mazda and a BMW (but no driver's license), who is the touring pro for a resort, who has her own clothing line, who pitches pasta and gasoline.

But at the Palmer School in her home of Wesley Chapel, Fla., Capriati is treated just like any other student. When she isn't on the road, she is expected to be in class and to perform, even though she says, "I like the school part, but I don't like the studying." Still, home and school provide a refuge for Capriati from the constant whir of the tour, which is an endless chain of airports, hotels and arenas.

"It's easy for me to act normal," she said. "I just go home. Go to school. Hang out with my friends. When I'm home, when I'm away from the tennis. When I go to play on the court or do interviews, I have to act more mature. It just happens. I act more like an adult. I just handle it."

Since her tour debut in March 1990, Capriati has exceeded expectations. The player groomed to be the next Chris Evert displayed her own personality and style, playing with joy while beating opponents nearly twice her age. Faced with trying to top herself in 1991, she performed superbly, winning two tournaments and rising to No. 6 in the rankings.

"In a way, it was easier the second time around," she said.

At Wimbledon, Capriati walked into a throne room and knocked the crown off a nine-time champion in the quarterfinals, beating Navratilova in two sets that were stretched by rain across two days. At the U.S. Open, she provided an encore, a three-set spectacular against the 17-year-old Monica Seles, the world's No. 1-ranked player. Capriati eventually lost in a tiebreaker after twice serving for the match. She endured an excruciating on-court television interview and then fled the stadium in tears. Even now, mention of the defeat causes Capriati to choke up with emotion.

"It's like, it wasn't fair," she said. "I played great. I served for it twice. I was two points away from a win. Why couldn't I win it? It was just two points. I still can't understand it. Even a 30-year-old would be crying after a match like that."

But the match and the season taught Capriati that she might be able to win an initial Grand Slam title before her junior prom. The breakthrough victory could come as early as January in the Australian Open. Her footwork improved in the last 10 months, and so did her shot-making. She added substance to her game, unveiling a topspin lob that left opponents defenseless.

Now, she even has a new coach. After working with Tom Gullikson, Capriati now will train with Pavel Slozil, the man who until recently provided the tactical polish for Steffi Graf.

"It's definitely clear to me that I can win a Grand Slam," Capriati said. "I knew going into the year that I could beat top-ranked players. Then, I got into semifinals. Then, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open came along. The tennis just came together."

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