WIMBLEDON, England — I don’t want to sound cold here, but losing Thursday was the best thing that could have happened to Jennifer Capriati. She needed to win Wimbledon like she needed a bleeding ulcer.

Better to exit in the semifinals, still smiling, still saying things like
“I had a great time,” packing the suitcase with nice memories and one huge moment: the straight-set destruction of Martina Navratilova, the defending champion. Capriati took her out Wednesday, in the quarterfinals, the first time in a decade someone had beaten Martina here before the finals. That was like blasting a trumpet into the tennis world’s ear.

And that’s plenty. Go home, kid, soak it in, listen to a few M.C. Hammer albums. Let people buzz about the things you will achieve in this game. But win it all now? At age 15? Become the youngest Wimbledon champion in history?

Why not walk down to London Bridge, tie weights to your ankles, and jump off? Tennis tears up teen girls

If the overglitzed, overhyped and overpaid world of tennis has shown us anything in the last 20 years, it’s that the top is no place for teenage girls. Not unless they want to spend the rest of their lives on a psychiatrist’s couch. Take a quick look at a list of victims: Tracy Austin, who played her best tennis when she wore braces, now a dizzy 28-year-old woman still hounded by her unachieved potential; Andrea Jaeger, who before Capriati was the youngest player ever seeded at Wimbledon, a star at 15, a has-been at 20, out of tennis now, her career one big explosion and a lot of dust.

Monica Seles, the No. 1 woman in the world today; she had an ulcer by the time she was 12, and has been the subject of more “reported nervous breakdowns” than a soap opera star. Last month, at age 17, she disappears, skips Wimbledon, and is spotted at Donald Trump’s mansion in Florida, with half the world reporting she’s pregnant and the other half passing judgment on her frenetic career. You need that when you’re 17? People passing judgment? Come on. When you’re 17, the only things you should worry about passing are 1) notes 2) your driver’s test 3) that cute kid’s locker.

Tennis stardom chokes all that. Steals the youth from thousands of girls who never reach a major tournament. Even those who survive are scarred; Steffi Graf’s reputation went from invincible to unstable in about two years. (I have personally watched her smile disappear in press conferences, replaced by a permanent scowl.) Gabriela Sabatini, the Argentine star who beat Capriati Thursday, endured bouts of homesickness and depression coming up.

And none of these women did what Capriati was threatening to do this week: win Wimbledon before her 16th birthday. Can you imagine? You’d have to throw her a life preserver. Newspapers. TV shows. Endorsement deals. Tournament directors. She’d be smothered. Every match she’d play would carry the introduction, “Ladies and gentlemen, the youngest Wimbledon champion in history . . . ”

Try living up to that the rest of your life. Capriati should emulate Evert

No, Capriati deserves better. We have something special in this long-legged American teenager, a bucking filly of tennis talent who seems to know instinctively that, at 15, the most important things in life are to be cool and laugh a lot. She still attends high school (albeit a rich, private academy.) Her speech is peppered with “you know, like, you know, like . . .
” She sits down for press conferences as if flopping on her bed, elbows out, palms on her ears. All that’s missing are the gum and the phone.

Good. That’s how it should be. Bad enough she already has an agent, millions of dollars, and Texaco and Oil of Olay patches on her tennis outfit. Bad enough that her father, who says “she’s only doing it because she loves to” — all the tennis fathers say that — still pushes her too far, demanding workouts when she wants to be with friends.

The best we can hope for is that success comes slowly for Capriati, the way

it did years ago for Chris Evert. Evert didn’t turn pro until she was 16, didn’t play in Europe until she was 17, made her first Grand Slam final at 18 and won her first one at 19.

She also lasted nearly 20 years.

Sadly, Capriati may be too talented for that pace. A pro at 14, she already has the big serve, hits like a rocket, and fires passing shots better than Kevin Costner fired arrows in “Robin Hood.” Guts? She made Navratilova, who could intimidate stone, look positively useless Wednesday. Even in losing to Sabatini, who has matured tremendously as a player, Capriati held off match point four times, whipping the ball out of reach, Sabatini flailing, looking bad, asking herself, “Hey, who’s winning this, she or I?”

In the end, it was Sabatini, which, trust me, is the best news for Capriati. A semifinalist? In her second visit? That’s enough. More than enough. Take it home, Jennifer. Put it in your scrapbook. Call your friends and say, “How cool.”

“Memories?” she said, when asked. “I’ll have great memories of this tournament. I’ll leave knowing I beat a great champion and that I got to the semifinals.”

And, smiling broadly, she left the room, in that clumpy way teenagers have of leaving rooms, playing with her ponytail and never knowing how lucky a loser she really was.

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