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Tennis' new legend in the making.

It was five minutes after the finals of the Family Circle Cup tennis championships on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, but the show was far from over on the stadium court. As NBC cameras beamed the event live across the country in April, Jennifer Capriati, a bubbly schoolgirl suddenly near the head of the class on the women's circuit, was still thrilling the sellout crowd.

The 14-year-old sensation might have just lost in two sets to veteran women's star Martina Navratilova, yet she was about to hit a winner at the end of her ppst-match interview with the commesntator, Bud Collins. "I'm not finished." Capriati interrupted playfully, as Collins tried to wrap up the brief Q and A session. Cheers and laughter instantly filled the stands at the sight of the ponytailed eighth grader commandeering Collins' microphone and then thanking her family, friends, and fans for their support. In truth, Capriati was fight on the money with Collins. She's not finished yet-she's only just begun a lucrative career that has the tennis world talking about a legend in the making. That might seem like a heavy burden for a girl who, in some ways, is just your everyday teen, a kid whose favorite movie actor is Tom Cruise, and one who loves to scour the nearest shopping mall for clothes, pick up new dance steps from MTV, or simply pal around with her friends from school. But Capriati, with her boundless energy and gentle confidence, seems oblivious to the pressure.

I'm just really enjoying myself," she said. "I'm having fun." And in the process, she continues to serve notice that a new force in American tennis may have arrived. With the retirement last year of Chris Evert, Capriati's grand entrance as a professional this year couldn't come at a better time for a U.S. contingent craving a charismatic new champion.

You certainly couldn't find a more fitting successor to the Evert legacy: she was coached as a toddler by Evert's father, Jimmy; her business manager from the International Management Group is Chris' younger brother, John; and her longtime friend and idol is Chris herself. As a constant reminder of their sisterly relationship, Capriati always wears a gold bracelet Evert gave her as a present three Christmases ago: on the front is engraved JENNIFER and on the back LOVE, CHRIS.

With all the family ties, it's small wonder that Capriati's playing style bears a striking resemblance to Evert's pounding ground stroke game, spiced up by the newcomer's penchant for rushing the net boldly to volley.

"I've known Jennifer since she was five years old, and I always knew she was a feisty competitor and great athlete." Evert said this past March. "I wouldn't be surprised if she ends up in the top ten this year."

Capriati certainly has done nothing to prove Evert wrong. In her first three tournaments, her feats included becoming the youngest player ever to reach the women's finals in a pro debut; gaining the finals in two of the three outings; routing the 1989 French Open winner and fourth ranked player of 1990, Arantxa Sanchez; and vaulting from no ranking to the top 25 in the world.

Along the way, Capriati has stirred intense international interest for her appearances this year at the French Open this spring and at Wimbledon.

Of course, she's accustomed to all the hoopla by now, having endured a crash course in media hype during her first step as a pro in early March at Boca Raton, Florida. More than a hundred reporters from as far away as West Germany, Yugoslavia, Portugal, and Argentina arrived for the normally routine Florida tournament.

In anticipation of the journalistic crush, tournament organizers had doubled the size of the press tent. It quickly became the site of daily standing-room-only, post-match press conferences for Capriati, who mowed own a handful of high-ranked veterans with her 94-mile-per-hour serves, relentless coverage of the court, and punishing baseline shots-all fueled y her precociously powerful 5'6", 125-pound frame. At times, Capriati's perfomances before the press proved as entertaining as her play on the court. After winning her first pro match, defeating the 110th-ranked ten-year pro Mary Lou Daniels, she calmly took her seat on the podium-and then poked a little fun at the mob of photographers who had converged on her and Daniels when they first entered the stadium. "I'm excited about my match, but I think the media is a little out of control," she said with a smile, triggering laughter among the press corps.

Capriati, meanwhile, seemed surprisingly in control with the media as the week progressed. The highlight came in an evening session, when a writer from England started asking if young Jennifer realized that by the time she stepped onto the court in an hour for doubles with Billie Jean King"That it'll be past my bedtime?" Capriati injected. The remark brought down the house.

Daily doses of forehand smashes and camera flashes weren't the only items on Capriati's agenda. She also had to contend with the bane of any teen's existence: homework. Being more than 200 miles from her private school-Palmer Academy near Tampa, Florida-wasn't enough to get her off the hook. School officials faxed her assignments in math, science, history, English, and Spanish, and Capriati, an A student, had to have them faxed back the next day.

At night, sometimes all the excitement would catch up with her. She'd lie awake past midnight, tossing and turning in the hotel room she shared with her younger brother, Steven. "I'd be really tired, and I would get in a hyper mood," she said. "So I'd just jump out of bed and start fighting with my brother until our parents would tell us to quiet down."

It was the third-ranked Gabriela Sabatini who eventually quieted down Capiriati, defeating her 6-4, 7-5. But in a larger sense, Capriati had won the tournament hands-down by spuming pressure with an array of gutsy comebacks during the week and ultimately surpassing the lofty expectations that had awaited her in Boca Raton.

"Watching her play is just awesome," said Wendy Tumbull, a former tour standout.

"She can definitely be the leading person in the 90s," said Pam Shriver, the pro tennis veteran. "As far as tennis in the States goes, there hasn't been a real strong personality and marketable young player to make an impact since Andrea Jaeger or Tracy Austin. We've either had Billie Jean or Chrissie. The time is right to have a new star."

In a way, Capriati's trek to tennis stardom began with her father, Stefano. Reared in Milan, he played goalkeeper on a soccer team, then gravitated to tennis in his 20s. Stefano, a burly, handsome man, parlayed his athletic ability into a stint as a movie stuntman in Spain and landed parts in such films as Patton, The Last Run, and 100 Rifles. It was in Spain 18 years ago, while swimming in a hotel pool, that he met an attractive flight attendant from New York catching some rays during a layover. The two hit it off from the beginning, and Denise and Stefano Capriati married after a commuter courtship.

Tennis quickly became a common bond for the couple. Working as a club pro in Long Island, Stefano took time to teach the game to his wife. She was hooked, playing until the day before heading to the hospital to deliver Jennifer. Stefano had his daughter doing baby-style situps by six months, as the story goes; by three years old, she was swinging a tennis racket; and by four, she seemed to have a genuine gift, rallying endlessly with the ball machine. The rest is history: Stefano prevailed upon Jimmy Evert, a Florida tennis pro, to give the precocious child a lesson. Evert couldn't believe his eyes-he was seeing the most amazing young prospect since his own daughter, Chris.

The Evert connection was in place; Capriati learned the game from the famous tennis father for the next five years. That education became the springboard for a dominant juniors career, highlighted last year when Capriati won the junior division singles championships at both the French and the U.S. opens.

At 13, Capriati was initially still too young to turn pro, according to rules established by the Women's International Tennis Association (WITA). In 1986, the WITA, hoping to prevent the kind of injury-riddled careers that undermined young stars Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin, decreed that a player had to be 14 to play professionally. However, they softened the rule recently, to permit a girl to play professionally in the month of her 14th birthday.

As a result, though Capriati was still three weeks shy of 14, she could now make her long-awaited debut in a southern Florida setting not far from where Evert had emerged as a star two decades earlier. In fact, Capriati even spent several days at the tournament relaxing in Evert's house just a few blocks from the stadium court, watching television and avoiding the glare of the international media.

Well before Capriati hit her first ball as a pro, she scored big in the endorsement department. After a bidding war among tennis goods companies, the International Management Group signed its coveted client to endorsement contracts with the Italian clothing and shoe firm Diadora, and also to Prince rackets, for deals that could exceed $6 million.

Capriati, however, has seemed totally unfazed by all the money, attention, and demands on her time during the past year. A pretty teen with her father's dark, Mediterranean coloring, she's just gone about her business, heading off to school on weekdays from 7:00 to 11:00 a.m., polishing her game with her father during the day, then finishing school in the evening. Her classmates at Palmer Academy have become one big fan club. A large contingent from school attended her final at Boca Raton and assembled the message G-0 J-E-N-N-I-F-E-R with colored poster cards in the stands.

"They don't treat me any different," she said. "I'm just the same old Jennifer to them."

The same kid who still likes to go to the movies, dance in front of the mirror with the radio blasting, or blow away the older boys she practices against to keep her game tuned. "I like to whip the boys," she said. "They say, Man, no 13-year-old is going to beat me.' That drives me crazy. If it's a boy and I beat them, it feels good."

Her parents, as well as her business manager, John Evert, have done what they can to preserve Capriati's privacy and time for normal activities. They have kept media access, aside from tournament press conferences, to a minimum. And they've limited the number and type of business endorsements she does, to prevent her from having to travel excessively to make required appearances. "She's still going to have a lot of free time outside of practice, but her parents want her to use that free time with her friends," John Evert said. "That's what's gotten her where she is; she's having fun, she loves the game, and let's keep it that way."

For Denise, there's been a special enjoyment in seeing her daughter handle the pressure and rewards so well. "I'm really happy for Jennifer," she said. "It's what she's been dreaming of for so long, to finally turn pro and be so successful. And the way she handles the press with such composure is almost better than the tennis. I just think she's really adjusting well. I don't think it's too much; she's just taking every day as it comes and enjoying every moment she can."

"My dream," said Stefano, who is now in his mid-50s, "is that she keeps growing with this game for many, many years."

Despite Capriati's amazing start, there are certainly no guarantees. Billie Jean King cautions about the dangers of the second year on the tour.

"The first year, everything is new and nobody really has the book on you," she said. "But it gets tougher after that. The one thing I've stressed to Jennifer is to just keep the love of the game very close to her heart."

That appears to come naturally to the kid who's already made the grade in the big time.
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Title Annotation:Jennifer Capriati
Author:Scheiber, Dave
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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