While hundreds of reporters descended on the posh grounds of The Polo Club in Boca Raton, while thousands of spectators spilled through the gates, while other players at the Virginia Slims of Florida gazed at the mob scene with bemusement, the cause of all the excitement, 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati, was curled up inside Chris Evert's elegant stucco house several blocks from the stadium court, watching a rerun of The Bionic Woman. "It was a way for me to relax a little," she said.
As it turned out, Capriati couldn't have picked a more fitting show to tune in to as she savored some privacy with her father, Stefano, her mother, Denise, and her brother, Steven. Later that afternoon, faster than you could say Lindsay Wagner, Capriati dismantled 10-year veteran Mary Lou Daniels 7-6 (7-1), 6-1—for the record, the date was March 6, 1990—to earn a victory in her first match as a pro. By week's end Capriati, the kid with the grown-up ground strokes, had served stirring notice that a new American tennis heroine had arrived, ready to pick up where Evert left off when she hung up her racket last year. "This wasn't a debut," said Ted Tinling, the 80-year-old tennis eminence. "It was a premiere!"
In a setting not far from where Evert, Capriati's idol, had emerged as a star two decades before, Capriati made history by becoming the youngest player ever to reach the finals of a women's tennis tournament. Though she was subdued 6-4, 7-5 by Gabriela Sabatini, the world's No. 3-ranked player, on Sunday afternoon, it didn't matter. Afterward, all talk centered on Capriati, who had displayed pounding baseline shots, precocious volleys and boundless energy all week as she ripped through a roll call of experienced pros: Daniels (ranked 110th), Claudia Porwik (34th), Nathalie Tauziat (16th), Helena Sukova (10th) and, finally, Laura Gildemeister (21st) in a semifinal match that featured tense back-to-back tiebreakers, both won by Capriati.
But as astonishing as Capriati's skills were, the indelible impression she left was of her apparent obliviousness to pressure. Time after time throughout the week she slipped behind in matches only to hammer her way back. She kept balls in play with spectacular returns, kept opponents on their heels with rocket serves that were sometimes clocked at 94 miles per hour and kept the crowds that packed her matches in her back pocket with a bubbly grace. "I like to fight," Capriati announced during one of her many SRO postmatch press conferences. "When I hear the crowd getting into it, I really get into it too."
The crowd virtually adopted her after her first-round victory. Spectators laughed as Capriati cavorted on the court with her 46-year-old doubles partner and Hall of Fame mentor, Billie Jean King, chattering, slapping fives and urging King on until they lost in the second round to Brenda Schultz and Andrea Temesvari.
King, who since last year has been helping Capriati with her serve-and-volley game and counseling her on the pressures of competition, thoroughly enjoyed her stint with the new kid on the block. "It's really fun for me to see somebody her age and how well she handles things," King said.
King was far from the only Capriati admirer on the premises. As the week progressed, the reviews rolled in like raves for a smash Broadway play.
"She can definitely be the leading person in the 1990s," said 27-year-old Pam Shriver, the world's 14th-ranked female player.
"She was born to do this kind of work," said former player and current tennis analyst Mary Carillo. "She's happy—that's her secret weapon."
Though Evert was out of town at a ski event in Aspen—consciously keeping her distance to give Capriati the full stage—an All in the (Evert) Family theme enveloped the tournament. In addition to giving the Capriatis the run of her house during the day—they spent nights in a hotel where Jennifer shared a suite with Steven adjacent to their parents' room—Evert sent Capriati a telegram of encouragement before her debut and called every day from Colorado. (Let's get the Evert-Capriati on-court comparisons out of the way here and now. They possess similar two-fisted backhands, and Capriati's baseline game seems as potent as Evert's was. But Capriati attacks more and packs more punch with her serve.)
And the Evert connection goes beyond Chris. In the stands each day sat gray-haired Jimmy Evert, who began coaching Capriati when she was four years old, two years younger than his own daughter was when he began teaching her. "It gives me a special feeling watching Jennifer do this." he said.
There was also John Evert, Chris's 28-year-old brother, who handles Capriati's business interests as her agent at the International Management Group (IMG). Widely publicized endorsement deals have already been cut with Italian clothing manufacturer Diadora ($3 million for five years) and racket manufacturer Prince ($1 million for three years). With incentive clauses for performance, she could earn another $2 million or more annually from these sources. But John says that, for now, further endorsements won't be sought, to ensure that Capriati won't have to spend too much time flying around the country hawking products.
"The last thing we want to do is tie her up to a lot of endorsements where she has to give up a lot of days," John Evert says.
In Boca Raton, Capriati stayed out of sight for the most part, protected by her family and tour officials. She practiced at private locations to avoid large crowds. She often slept until noon, called friends, received homework assignments by fax machine, disregarded newspaper stories about her matches and usually lay awake at midnight, too excited to sleep.
At the daily press conferences Capriati handled herself with a gentle confidence that occasionally proved as entertaining as her tennis. Following her third-round victory over Tauziat last Thursday night, Capriati triggered a roomful of laughter when asked whether she had been intimidated facing the No. 16 player. "Number 16? The 16th seed?" she asked. When told of Tauziat's ranking, she recovered with another brash Capriati comeback, "It wouldn't matter if I was going against Steffi Graf."
Later a writer from England started to ask her if she realized that by the time she stepped onto the court an hour later for doubles with Billy Jean.... "That it'll be past my bedtime?" Capriati injected. Her timing provoked howls.
The tournament's press tent was twice the size of last year's because of the expected Capriati crush, and it was filled with reporters from as far away as West Germany, Portugal. Yugoslavia and Argentina. The bandwagon actually began rolling the week before the tournament. To accommodate the avalanche of interview requests for Capriati, two conference calls were conducted during one afternoon with nearly 30 reporters from the U.S. and England. ABC shot a segment on Capriati at her home in Saddlebrook, Fla., NBC spotlighted her on the Today show, and camera crews pleaded, to no avail, to film her private practices.
Older players couldn't help but chuckle at the bulging press brigade. "I want to thank you all for showing up for my first-round match." said Shriver to about 10 reporters.
There were more than enough cameras poised to record the proceedings at the long-awaited debut. While a searing March afternoon sun beat down on the stadium court, nearly two dozen photographers crammed the courtside entrance as Capriati and Daniels came into view. In the stands, scattered boos of impatience rippled through the capacity crowd of some 6,000 as the players posed for more rounds of photos at the net. Even a linesman sneaked into the phalanx of photographers to snap away.
Minutes later the image of a grinning teenager waving to the crowd gave way to that of an intense competitor bearing a gaze of steely determination. The crowd didn't warm to her immediately but seemed to feel for her opponent. "I'm for you, Mary Lou!" yelled a spectator. Daniels, 28, predicted that she would have a number of veterans pulling for her in the stands, and she drew plenty of applause as she overcame an 0-3 deficit to take a 6-5 lead in the first set. Capriati was suddenly out of kilter, losing 10 straight points with erratic shots into the net and beyond the baseline. "I panicked for Jennifer, because I thought. It's gotten to her totally," said Shriver. "I had a nightmare for her."
But it was Daniels who soon found herself in a bad dream. Capriati struck back, tying the set on her serve to force a tiebreaker in which she overpowered Daniels. Her early jitters overcome, Capriati then calmly conquered Daniels and the crowd. A healthy ovation filled the stadium as Daniels' final shot sailed long. Within seconds, photographers mobbed Capriati, who beamed as she hugged her family and friends.
Daniels' assessment, offered before another packed crowd in the press tent: "Steffi hits a heavy ball, but I'd say she's right up there with Steffi." Then, with photographers jostling for position, Capriati stepped to the podium. "I'm excited about my match," she said. "But I think the media is a little out of control."
After nailing Daniels, Capriati sent the 21-year-old Porwik, a West German, packing. After winning the first set 7-5, Capriati's tournament hopes seemed to flicker as Porwik, who is 5'10" and weighs 138 pounds, rolled through six games to win the second set in 24 minutes. But with the crowd in her corner, Capriati broke Porwik's serve twice in the third set to win the match.
The next evening Capriati found herself in another predicament as Tauziat, a 22-year-old Frenchwoman, took command early in the first set and built a 4-1 lead. But Capriati won the next game at love, broke Tauziat and suddenly was alive. In all, she would win 11 of the next 13 games before blowing a kiss to her father in the stands at the end of her third victorious match.
By the time Capriati met the 6'2" Sukova of Czechoslovakia on Friday, her march had taken on the mounting tension of a pitcher working on a perfect game but about to face one of the best hitters around. Earlier this year Sukova had taken No. 1 Graf and No. 2 Martina Navratilova to three sets before losing. The stands were packed. Even former basketball star Wilt Chamberlain was there. Capriati would spot him and call out, "Dr. J?"
Capriati started with an ace and won the set 6-1 before Sukova knew what had hit her. Sukova regrouped and then, holding a 4-3 lead and the momentum, found herself contending with a new Capriati ally: the weather. It started to rain, and play was suspended for 29 minutes. The delay cooled off Sukova; when play resumed, Capriati won 12 of 15 points to move into the semis. "I saw her hit yesterday and knew she was hitting the ball well, placing the ball well," said Sukova. "But I didn't think she could do it the whole match."
Capriati again appeared to meet her match Saturday against Gildemeister, who had already upset No. 6 Monica Seles and No. 11 Jana Novotna and was now wearing down Capriati. After two gray, breezy days, the weather was now scorching hot. And soon, so was you-know-who.
Capriati battled back from a 4-2 deficit to force a tiebreaker, in which she fell behind 5-2. No sweat. Suddenly it was 6-6. Trailing 7-6, Capriati swept the next three points to pull out the set. The second set was a virtual instant replay of the first, tiebreaker and all.
On Sunday the growing legion of Capriati followers was out in force for the tournament finale. Sabatini, as always, had her own share of vocal supporters, and they had the most to cheer about. Capriati wasn't as sharp as in her earlier matches, but the difference was Sabatini's ability to move the ball to all corners of the court and tire her young opponent—something none of her predecessors had been able to accomplish.
But Sabatini, too, had seen the future of women's tennis. "I had to play my best tennis to beat her," she said. "She should be in the top very soon."
So where does Capriati go from here? First, to Key Biscayne this week for the Lipton International Players Championship, one of 10 major tournaments she'll play in over the next 12 months. Beyond that, Capriati has a ticket to ride as a prominent force in the women's game. Said Shriver: "The time is right to have a new star."
Evert knows that's just what American tennis is waiting for. "I think that everybody hopes so much that Jennifer is going to be the one, like Billie Jean and myself, and can be Number One in the world, after Europe has been doing so well," said Evert. "It's like we're starving for someone to come along and fill the void."
But there were caution flags as well. "Sophomore year is the dangerous one," said King. "The first year, everything is new, and nobody really has the book on you. But it gets tougher after that."
Nevertheless, Evert predicted that by the end of this year, Capriati will be among the Top 10 players in the world. Which scarcely seems any more farfetched than the amazing show that the grinning 13-year-old put on last week.
With her powerful ground strokes, Capriati seemed more Big Bopper than teenybopper.
Capriati's admirers were everywhere—in the stands, on the court and, in the case of Dr. J, er, the Big Dipper, at her side.
[See caption above.]
With King and Capriati in the same lineup, the game's past and future came together.
A proud Stefano videotaped the two finalists for posterity before they took the court...
...but the festivities ended when a fired-up Sabatini beat Capriati in two close sets.