When Chris Evert retired at the end of last season, I felt a flagging of my interest in tennis. I admit this may have been related to the approach of my 30th birthday and the realization that I was closer in age and sympathy to Evert than I was to 21-year-old Steffi Graf, who clenched the top ranking so tightly she seemed to squeeze all the fun out of it. With Evert gone, I eyed 34-year-old Martina Navratilova as she gallantly fought on, despite weakened knees.
"There's my era," I thought. "When she goes, I go."
Then a wonderful series of indignities was perpetrated on the women's circuit by two teenagers who overran the sport with their squealing, slangy, mall-prowling ways and shook it out of the listlessness that had threatened it.
In March, Jennifer Capriati, the knock-kneed 13-year-old, made her professional debut at what I dubbed the Virginia Slims of Capriati, and pretty soon she was ranked No. 8 in the world. In June, the wirehaired, cartoon-figurish 16-year-old Monica Seles upset Graf to win the French Open‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üand eventually rose to No. 2 in the world. In October, I turned 30 and decided that the sport, and these two, might bear watching for another 10 years.
They played as if they had been shot out of cannons. Capriati won a tournament, made two finals and the French Open semifinals while appearing oblivious to the circus around her, a media-driven hysteria that resulted in her agent, John Evert, earning the nickname Colonel Tom Parker in tennis circles. "I think I'm just a kid, and I have this talent, and I don't know why everyone is going just crazy over it," Capriati said. Seles, in only her second year on tour, won six tournaments in a row, beat Graf in the German and French opens and ran up a 3-1 record against Navratilova.
Capriati and Seles were the kind of kids you wanted to pat on the nose. They had these lustrous ponytails, sideways grins and guilelessness. And they had a lot in common. Capriati was from Saddlebrook, Fla.; Seles was a Yugoslav who lived in Sarasota. Their furnacelike metabolisms were marvels. Capriati, already 5'7" and 135 pounds of muscle, with a man's-sized shoe, had a voracious appetite. Shortly after she was defeated by Graf in the fourth round at the U.S. Open, she was spotted clutching several brownies, a ginger ale and a lollipop‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üall at once. She ate five hot dogs, one for every set, while watching Seles beat Gabriela Sabatini in the year-end Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden. Capriati called her friends "dudettes."
Last year, as a 15-year-old rookie, Seles was 5'4" and 99 pounds. This year she became a 5'9", 120-pounder, and her physician predicted she would eventually reach six feet. "A year ago I was looking down at her; this year I'm looking up at her," Navratilova said. "And it's ticking me off."
There was, at first, an enlivening sense that Capriati and Seles cared less about what to do with the short ball and the virtues of a one-handed slice than about clothes, magazines, music and food. "Maybe we should go shopping together," Seles mused at one point. Cars were very big too. Seles pined for a Lamborghini, despite her parents' disapproval, and began angling for it after her straight-set upset of Graf in the French Open final. "I think now is the perfect time to ask them," she said coyly. Capriati had a chance to win a Mazda Miata when she met Navratilova in April in the final of the Family Circle Magazine Cup. "It's just as well I won it," Navratilova said, "since Jennifer can't drive."
Before that match, Navratilova's majestic name and reputation were reduced to a "lege" by Capriati. "You know, a lege, a legend," Capriati explained. At least Navratilova got off easier than Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Capriati casually referred to during the French Open as, "Oh, yeah. That little dead dude."
But somewhere along the line this lighthearted time became slightly discordant, the tennis less joyful. By Wimbledon in June, veteran Robin White's remark following her third-round loss to Capriati had a familiar ring. "I don't ever want to hear about 14-year-olds again," White said.
Capriati's endorsements were worth between $3 million and $5 million before she ever struck a ball as a professional. When Oil of Olay, a skin cream associated with older women, signed her in August to a lucrative deal, it all began to seem a bit much. "I think you're never too young to start taking care of your skin," Jennifer said. But maybe she was too young to play all that tennis. At the French Open, she seemed strained. By Wimbledon I thought, She's tired.
No one argued that Seles and Capriati were physically incapable of playing professional tennis. "They're special, they're exceptions," Billie Jean King said. "They've got it." But they showed signs of fraying and overuse. Seles had begun the year with a sore shoulder that was slow to heal. She continued to play but said, "I learned my lesson." Really? Just after she won the Virginia Slims Championships in November and the tour officially ended, she left for Argentina to play two more exhibitions with Sabatini. Did Seles, with $1.63 million in prize and bonus money for the year, really need to do that?
Cover girl Capriati was a brilliant, desperately needed new star for women's tennis, but did the Women's International Professional Tennis Council behave ethically or wisely when it bent and altered its own rules to allow her to play more major tournaments than the number originally mandated for girls under the age of 15. The transparent manipulations of the WIPTC to ensure that she qualified for the year-end Slims Championships meant that Capriati's time at home and in school, planned for the months following the U.S. Open, was abbreviated. To earn qualifying points for the Slims, she played an extra tournament in Puerto Rico, and it was all for naught. Capriati got an unlucky draw and met Graf in the first round at the Garden. You had to wonder how much Capriati had left in her, anyway. After losing to Graf in a marvelous three-set match, she was so exhausted that she complained of the long walk around the Garden rotunda to a press conference. "Is it much farther?" she asked.
Navratilova began to sound like a den mother on the subject, and I began to feel like one. At 14 and 15, fall and winter are for school. Spring and summer are for vacation. "When I was that age, if I got in two hours of tennis a day, that was pretty good," Navratilova says. It's one reason why she won her record ninth Wimbledon at the age of 33. "I think we're getting too sophisticated at too early an age. I mean, who cares if she plays the Slims Championships now? She can have 10 years of them if she wants them. If she were my daughter, I'd say, 'You're staying home, you're staying in school, you're not flying around the country with some tutor.' "
The youth movement in women's tennis is not new. In fact, Evert probably invented it. And it seems to me that so far she is the only one who has been able to negotiate her teens wisely, in part because the rules then prevented her from turning pro before she was 18 and also because her parents encouraged her not to play a full schedule until she graduated from high school. And Stefano and Denise Capriati, Karolj and Esther Seles‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√ÜJennifer's and Monica's parents? Surely they have learned something from the injury-and burnout-abbreviated careers of Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger. These parents have the benefit of sophisticated training, testing and sports psychology. Where is the common sense? Jennifer and Monica are much too good for the game to be wasted on supercharged, flare-out careers.
But more and more, I'm afraid, that is the trend. Even Graf, a comparatively resilient pro since she was 13, has said she may not play beyond the age of 25. Compared with the long slow marches I enjoyed with Evert and Navratilova, Graf may be a mere sound bite of a player, Capriati and Seles mere glimpses. And I may no longer measure my decades by player careers.