They just keep coming, with two fists on their backhands, ribbons in their hair and Mr. Moo, the one-eared stuffed animal, sitting on their beds back home: Evert, Austin, Jaeger and now 14-year-old Kathy Rinaldi, who last month had all the newshounds baying as she traipsed around Europe, playing her way into tennis history. Her father, who has curtailed his dental practice in Florida to shepherd his daughter, recalls noticing four passengers on a flight to London perusing different newspapers, each of which carried a picture of Kathy.
Rinaldi first burst onto the sports pages when she knocked off eighth-seeded Dianne Fromholtz and Anne Smith (No. 11) to reach the quarterfinals of the French Open. Two weeks later, she created another sensation by fighting off a match point to become the youngest player ever to win a match at Wimbledon. In the second round the jitters caught up with her, and she lost in three sets to Claudia Pasquale of Switzerland.
Before her 15th birthday, when she was four months older than Rinaldi is now, Andrea Jaeger turned pro, and today, some 18 months later, she's close to being a millionaire. Kathy, meanwhile, paws at the ground when the subject of going pro comes up. "Sure," she says. "Isn't that everyone's goal?"
So far, Rinaldi has passed up thousands in prize money, but for the summer at least she'll remain an amateur, entering one or two open tournaments while concentrating on 18-and-under amateur events, where the competitive spirit sometimes takes a backseat to jealousy and envy. Two weeks ago, at the National Junior Hard Courts in Burlingame, Calif., Rinaldi, seeded third—the two players seeded ahead of her were 17—was suffering from too many jet plane rides and too much tennis and was upset in the round of 16. Jaw set, eyes straight ahead and back rigid, she marched past the tournament desk, where some girls were squealing over the match. "What's the matter with her" one meowed. "Oh, she's just mad 'cause she lost," purred another.
Losing doesn't sit well with Kathy. Two years ago she became the first player ever to sweep all four U.S. girls 12-and-under titles in a single year. Last year, playing in the 14s, she won two major championships and reached at least the semis of every other 14-and-under tournament she entered. She ended up ranked third nationally, behind two girls a year older than she. This year, in addition to her wins in Europe, she has given Martina Navratilova a fine match.
How good is Rinaldi? Frank Froehling, a former U.S. Davis Cupper who was ranked sixth in the world in 1963, has had a hand in developing her strokes. "She can be the best woman player of all time," says Froehling. "My feeling is that she's better at this age than anybody before her, including Tracy Austin."
Austin and Jaeger are the standards by which all others are measured in the world of tiny-tot pro tennis. Kathy compares well to both of them. She stands 5'5" and weighs 115 pounds—bigger than either Austin or Jaeger is now—and her ground strokes, especially off a reliable backhand, are power-packed. Amy Olmedo, 18-year-old daughter of 1959 Wimbledon champion Alex Olmedo, plays for Texas' Trinity University, which had the nation's second-ranked women's team in 1981. Rinaldi recently routed her 6-1, 6-0. Afterward, Amy said, "It's the same feeling I had playing Austin four years ago. In fact, I think she hits harder than Tracy did at the same age."
She also volleys better than Austin, Jaeger and Chris Evert did at 14. Instead of swinging at the ball as most girls her age do, Kathy punches it. Though she doesn't venture up to the net regularly, she's not afraid of it and she knows how to use the angles once she gets there.
Rinaldi's deficiencies are a lollipop serve and an occasional smothered forehand. She also lacks Austin's, speed and Jaeger's touch. "But she has a lot of natural ability," says Froehling. She's currently ranked 38th on the Women's Tennis Association computer.
It's a bit surprising to wake up and find an international tennis star eating jelly beans in your living room, which is more or less what has suddenly happened to Dennis and Lindi Rinaldi, Kathy's parents. The Rinaldis live in the tiny community of Sewalls Point, which is near Jensen Beach, which is near Stuart, which is about 50 miles up the coast from West Palm Beach.
Dennis was a basketball and baseball star during his high school years in Cleveland. Lindi is from nearby Rocky River, and they both look as if they just stepped out of their respective high school yearbooks. Indeed, they don't like it when reporters ask their ages. "Just say we're fortyish," says Lindi. "I'm 39," says Dennis, "just like Jack Benny."
"Who's Jack Benny?" says Kathy.
There are three older children in the family: Denny, a first-year student at the University of Florida dental school; Tina, a senior at the University of Virginia; and Bill, a freshman at Florida. They all played tennis as kids, but started late, i.e., after they put away their pacifiers for good. Kathy started playing when she was four. She would tag along with her mother to the courts, and when Lindi finished playing, she got to hit for 15 minutes. That started it. "It was always just fun for her," says Lindi. "It wasn't drill, drill, drill at that point."
That came later, when she gave up baton twirling, Girl Scouts, cheerleading, Softball and the piano for tennis. Soon she was going through tournaments hardly losing a game, much less a set. At 12 she played an exhibition at the Wight-man Cup matches. Shortly thereafter, her passport was getting stamped regularly.
For someone so gifted, Rinaldi's record was a bit spotty through the first few months of this year. Then her Prince showed up. After losing in the second round of the 18s at the Easter Bowl tournament in Edgewater, N.J. in April, she switched to the wood version of that oversized racket the next day, and her confidence soared. That week she sailed through the qualifying of a pro tournament at Amelia Island, Fla. and then won two matches in the main draw before Navratilova beat her 7-6, 6-1.
All the media hype has been a shock to the Rinaldis, who try not to forget that their daughter is only entering the ninth grade at Martin County High School. "We're learning as we go along," says Dennis, who, in effect, is the curator of a tennis treasure. "You can look at it that way," he says. "But we don't. I try to relate everything to what's best for her. If we make a mistake, we make a mistake."
A lot of tongues wagged last year when Dennis, a good club player who's relatively new to the game, decided to replace Froehling with himself as his daughter's coach. He made the change after Kathy lost in the semis of the National 14s. "It's a strange situation," says Froehling, 39, who owns a tennis-court-construction business in Stuart, Fla. "They didn't contact me about the move, and I didn't contact them. I just assumed he didn't want me to coach her. It's a little sad because I put a lot of work into Kathy, and I feel I had something to do with helping her. When I read about her now, I never see my name."
Froehling, who still considers himself a friend of the family, believes sending Kathy to Europe this spring, her success notwithstanding, may have been a mistake. "I think Dennis is rushing it," he says. "The pressure is on her, and it didn't need to be at this point. Now she's in the spotlight, and she's expected to perform. I would've liked for her to have waited one more year. But I don't want to criticize Dennis. If Kathy becomes the best in the world, I'll feel great."
To train his daughter, Dennis has restructured his dental practice, working early-morning hours and then knocking off to head for the courts. He once was a one-handicap golfer. "The fundamentals of the two games are similar," he says. "They're both swinging sports. Kathy and I work together. She tells me what she thinks, and if we disagree we talk it over. She'll give anything an honest try."
Despite all the attention and expectations, Kathy remains a low-key, unaffected teen-ager whose little-girl ways show up unexpectedly, like fingernails painstakingly decorated with minute figures that include a tiny watermelon. Her favorite food is pizza, and her responses are just as elementary.
What do you miss when traveling?
Do you wish reporters would vanish?
What's most important on the court?
Rinaldi is obviously single-minded about her tennis. Most days when she's not in a tournament she jogs, does agility drills and calisthenics, and skips rope to music. This all comes after she has worked out for two to three hours on the court with her father.
There's so little time, you see. Not long ago sweet 16 was considered the turning point in a player's development. These days that's old.