Youth Well Served, Even in Loss to Graf

WIMBLEDON, England — She took aim at the last tennis ball, she slipped, she whiffed, the crowd groaned, and the freshest story of this Wimbledon tournament was over. Jennifer Capriati was out after four rounds. You think she was angry? You think she was down? She came into the press room wearing an MTV T-shirt and beaming from ear to ear as if she had just won the lead in the school play. Which, come to think of it, she sort of has.

I’ve seen the future of women’s tennis, ladies and gentlemen, and it has tickets to the Prince concert tonight. Of course that can be big stuff when you’re 14 years old, Prince tickets, a lot bigger than some nerdy history you happen to create by being the youngest player to ever set food Wimbledon’s Centre Court, let alone win a match.

“What will you do now?” someone asked Capriati, who said good-bye here after three victories and one defeat Monday to Steffi Graf, who is only the best female player on the planet.

“What’ll I do” Capriati gushed. “I’ll go to the Prince concert with my mom. I mean, I don’t even like Prince that much, but just to go, you know?”

She was talking like a teenager again. A half hour earlier she had been playing like some 25-year-old. It is hard to describe what you feel as you watch this kid play tennis. Mostly, you feel old. College freshmen feel old watching Capriati. Here is a kid who, the legend goes, was doing sit- ups when she was six months out of the womb. A girl who once took a lesson from Jimmy Evert, Chris’s father. He immediately telephoned his famous daughter.
“I’ve just seen the most talented kid since you,” he said.

Capriati was four at the time.

On Monday, against the suddenly mature-looking Graf — the first meeting between The Present and The Future of women’s tennis — there she was again, little Jen, her ponytail flopping, her legs swallowing the court like a fawn racing through the woods. A passing shot that left Graf flat-footed. A lob and then a slam that left Graf shaking her head. Overall, she didn’t give Steffi a great match (6-2, 6-4), but she gave her some incredible points. That’s one way you judge kids in tennis. If they can flash these brilliant points, a cross- court here, a drop shot there, well, there is hope they will paint the complete masterpiece one day. I promise you this: If she doesn’t burn up, blow up, or run off with one of the New Kids on the Block, Jennifer Capriati will deliver a museum’s worth of masterpieces. That’s easy. Capriati plays beyond her years

Which brings us to a harder question. Should we be seeing her etchings at such a tender age? Doesn’t a 14-year-old belong someplace other than Centre Court, Wimbledon, playing before the Royal Box (or, as young Capriati put it,
“Princess Fergie and everything”)?

That, of course, depends on where you sit. The problem with Capriati is not her age, which is minor, but her talent, which is major. Were she just some kid trying to leap into the big money, you could slap her parents on the wrists, say “shame on you” and expel her back to high school. But blessed skill is not so easily dismissed. With her whipping backhands and speedy court coverage, Capriati is as good as any top player on any given point. That includes Navratilova, Sabatini, Sukova, all of them. Clearly, if you denied her the pro ranks — if you held her in the juniors for another four years — she’d simply destroy the same poor victims over and over. She might even give up the sport. After all, what happens to a dream deferred?

Those in favor of her pro status will argue that we didn’t keep Michael Jackson from performing before he could drive. Nor, for that matter, did anyone stop Mozart from touring Austria before he was 10, playing piano blindfolded for money. Because she is breaking no rules, she can’t be halted on legal grounds. Maybe the only barometer that matters is the thing most of us remember from our teenage years:

Fun. Is she having any? The future is now for women’s tennis

“Oh, it was a lot of fun out there,” Capriati insisted, sounding very much like a girl standing by her high school locker. “I was playing against Steffi Graf! It was great. . . . She’s real nice.”

Well. What did you expect? Hamlet? Graf, for her part, praised Capriati, saying she is ahead of where Graf was at age 14. “If I had her legs,” Steffi sighed. Of course Graf has more than that. And less. She has paid for her success with her youth, an adolescence so famous and so targeted for gossip that she has threatened to leave her homeland to seek a more normal life. Is that what’s best for Capriati?

Her father, Stefano, who manges her, and her mother, Denise, a flight attendant, insist that fun and relative normalcy are the most important things, not the millions Jennifer has already earned by signing up for the big time. During her match Monday, her younger brother, Stephen, lost a tooth biting into some caramel. After the match, he quickly showed it to his sister.
“Yuck,” she said.

That sounds normal.

But Wimbledon at 14 is not, no matter how many concerts you see. We can only hope Capriati follows the Evert path, and not that of Tracy Austin and other tennis burnouts. It is a dangerous road she is on. And there are no rules to protect her.

Tonight, at the concert, Prince may do a song from “Batman,” which goes:
“I’ve seen the future, and it will be/ I’ve seen the future, and it works.”

You wonder what a 14-year-old will make of that.

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