Jennifer Capriati seems like the kind of eighth-grader who chews seven sticks of gum at a time. Gangling and guileless, she speaks in a series of abashed stops and starts, mumbling and fumbling and stumbling in a voice that's pure soda pop: a flow of sugar and caramel laced with a fine icy fizz. "Me and my mother—my mother and me—are going out this afternoon to a new mall," she says with a tentative smile that conveys a slightly goofy but disarming buoyancy. "There's another mall closer to us, but this one is, uh, a new mall, a bigger one. It's got more stores, more...stuff."
"She's just a happy-go-lucky kid, but put a tennis racket in her hand and she turns killer," says Rick Macci, her former coach. In fact, Jennifer has been dispatching much older opponents with cold professionalism for some time. Two years ago, at the disgracefully precocious age of 12, she became the youngest ever to win either the girls' national 18-and-under clay or hardcourt title; she won both. Last fall she moved up to second on the International Tennis Federation 18-and-under women's ranking, winning the junior titles at the French and U.S. Opens.
No less an authority than Tracy Austin has called her the best American prospect since Tracy Austin. No less an authority than Ion Tiriac thinks she may be the future of women's tennis. Next month the future will begin to unfold. That's when a not-quite-14 Jennifer—her birthday is March 29—will make her professional debut, at the Virginia Slims of Florida in Boca Raton. Already the tennis world is abuzz with anticipation. "I'm telling you," says Macci. "She's scary."
But on this unseasonably cold afternoon under a mottled sky in Saddle-brook, Fla., the resort community near Tampa in which she lives, Jennifer doesn't look chilling; she looks chilly. Her arms are willowy, and her back apparently boneless, like a gymnast's. She may be the athletic equal of any woman in the sport. "I like the competitiveness and rewards of tennis," she says.
"Well, I mean, if you're good, you win Wimbledon and you get...you get, like, a trophy. They also...well, you also get your name put on the bowl."
You can also get rich, as Jennifer has discovered even before hitting her first pro serve. Diadora, an Italian sportswear manufacturer, has already signed her to a five-year endorsement deal that with performance bonuses could give Jennifer an estimated $5 million, which would rank her third in clothing and shoe endorsements among female players, behind Steffi Graf and the recently retired Chris Evert.
Jennifer's Shih Tzu, Bianca, jumps into her lap. Jennifer interrupts her thought with a delighted "ahhhh," instantly curling her hands into paws and screwing her face into a puppy's pout.
Why did you name her Bianca?
"I named her after, uh...I named her 'cause, like...I don't know," she says. "I just named her. And then, like, I was watching one of my favorite soaps, like All My Children, and there's like a little girl with the same, uh, name. But I didn't, like, name Bianca after her. It was...hmmm...uh.... I'm sorry. What was the question again?"
Jennifer's father, Stefano, hovers a few feet away, listening in. He's her constant companion and primary coach, always prodding and coaxing, nagging and cajoling. During the past nine years the Capriatis—the other two members of the family are her mother, Denise, who's a Pan Am flight attendant, and her 10-year-old brother, Steven—have moved all over Florida seeking a better tennis environment for Jennifer. Stefano has even given up most of his real estate activities to devote himself to her career. For the past year the U.S. Tennis Association has picked up most of Jennifer's traveling expenses and provided coaching, because she was a member of the national junior team.
Stefano, 54, grew up in Milan, where he played goalie for an amateur soccer team. He didn't take up tennis until his twenties, when he moved to Spain to become a movie stuntman. His credits include Patton, The Last Run and 100 Rifles, a paella Western starring Jim Brown and Raquel Welch.
He sees himself as the noble head of a princely family, imposing order and dispensing justice. Though his jowls have thickened and his belly has dropped, he remains a handsome bull-patriarch with a pugnacious thrust to his jaw that recalls the sheer cussedness of Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy. He protects Jennifer the way the Menuhin family must have watched over young Yehudi, swaddling her privacy.
Denise, Bronx-born, is a good-looking, slightly reticent woman given to the same fits of ditsiness as her daughter. "Stay in your seats or you'll get whipped," she deadpans in a mock airline safety drill.
She met Stefano 18 years ago during a layover in Spain. She was lounging poolside at a Torremolinos hotel when his head popped out of the water. "Let's have lunch," said Stefano. Denise managed a swoon. By dinner, all that remained was to register their silver pattern at Tiffany's.
For several years they lived in both Spain and the U.S. Occasionally, Stefano, a self-made tennis player, worked as a club pro on Long Island. Denise was one of his first pupils. She played until the day before she went into labor with Jennifer. "Stefano knew she would be a tennis player before she was even born," says Denise. "Just by the way I carried her."
Contrary to rumor, Stefano didn't start coaching Jennifer in the delivery room. He gave her a couple of months to settle in. When she was still an infant, he propped a pillow under her butt and made her do sit-ups. "She was a strong baby," he says. "She liked to crawl behind the ball machine and play with the balls when I taught. I wanted to keep her in the shade, but she would always crawl after the balls."
Jennifer first got her hands on a racket at three. At four, she could hold her own with the ball machine. "Already she could rally a hundred times on the court," he says.
That's when the family moved to Lauderhill, Fla., and Stefano took her to see another dad whose daughter had done all right with tennis lessons—Jimmy Evert, the pro at Holiday Park in nearby Fort Lauderdale. "She's too young for me," said Evert, who normally doesn't start teaching kids until they have reached the mature age of five.
"First, see," said Stefano. "I think she can hit the ball."
Evert saw. "O.K.," he said. "I'll give her a lesson."
The lessons lasted for five years. Jennifer even got to hit with Chris. "The first time I practiced with her," says Jennifer, "I was so nervous I couldn't keep the ball in the court. She probably thought I was soooo bad."
She shows off the gold bracelet Evert gave her for Christmas in 1987. JENNIFER is engraved on the front, LOVE, CHRIS on the back. Jennifer never takes it off.
In many ways—the fiat, crushing ground-strokes, the two-handed backhand, the unflappable composure, the Wilson graphite racket—Capriati is the image of Evert. But she rushes the net more often in a single match than Evert did in most tournaments. ' "Capriatis a phenomenon," says Seena Hamilton, director of the Easter Bowl, a junior championship tournament, and the doyenne of tennis tots. "She's without a doubt the most promising player since Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger."
Largely because of the injury-plagued careers of Austin and Jaeger, the Women's International Professional Tennis Council in 1986 barred girls under 14 from playing the pro circuit. Stefano, however, wanted Jennifer to be allowed to enter a limited number of tournaments while retaining her amateur status. A year ago, a formal request was filed by the International Management Group, which was already representing Jennifer, but it was denied. Stefano considered filing a lawsuit but has since mellowed. "The rule is good," he says. "But there should be some exceptions to give a smooth transition to a certain player." (The WIPTC has since modified its rule, allowing girls to play in pro tournaments during the month of their 14th birthday.)
Yet Stefano bristles at the mere mention of Austin and Jaeger, whom some tennis theorists have said may have played too much too soon for their young bodies to endure. "What is the point of bringing them up?" he says. "They belong to the past. I believe in the future. There is nothing to be learned from their stories. They were completely different. Jennifer is just an American girl with a chance to be great."
"Jennifer's certainly exciting to watch," says Austin. "Players like her come along once a decade." Not long ago the last one to come along was hobbling around on a crutch in her parents' house in Rolling Hills, Calif. She was behind the wheel of a rented car in New Jersey last August when a van ran a red light. The van smashed into Austin's side of the vehicle, propelling the car across the road. Everything was spattered with blood: the dashboard, the door, Austin.
She was still unconscious when they pulled her out of the wreckage. Her right leg was broken. The operation to reconstruct the tibia took three hours. A piece of her hip had to be grafted into her knee. She had been making another comeback—this time playing doubles with the Team/Tennis league—but the accident made her a spectator.
Eleven years ago, at 16, Austin had become the youngest player to win the U.S. Open. She reached No. 1 in the world in 1980, and in '81 won the U.S. Open again. By the time she was 18, Austin had earned more than $1 million in prize money. She retired with $1,921,990 in tour earnings, 12th on the alltime list. By any standard, Austin's career was an enviable success, only short-lived. Recurring back and foot injuries finally forced her off the circuit in 1983, and she has played only sparingly since.
Yet Austin doesn't believe her ailments were caused by too much tennis at too young an age. "They started when I damaged a sciatic nerve for the second time in 1982," she says. "When you get injured, you've got to take time off. I came back too soon, and I got re-injured. It was a vicious cycle."
The temptation Jennifer faces, says Austin, is to overplay and overtrain. "At Jennifer's age, you tend to see things short-term," she says. "She has to learn to take her time. If she gets hurt, she has to listen to her body instead of thinking, 'I've got to play Kansas City next week and Chicago after that.' Meanwhile, tournament organizers call and say, 'Come on, we need you. You're a drawing card.' "
Austin thinks Jennifer must learn three things: patience, patience and patience. "The most important thing for her is to enjoy tennis, even when she starts losing," says Austin. "She's got to continue to develop her game and not be concerned with results. If she can, then the sky's the limit."
"Three-A, plus two-A, plus six-A," says Jennifer. "No, that's not right. It's three-A, parenthesis, two-A, plus six-A, closed parentheses." She's writing an algebraic equation on a locker room blackboard at the Forum in Los Angeles in November. "It's my homework," she tells a bunch of reporters. She has just given Laura Gildemeister, a 25-year-old pro who will be ranked 20th in the world at the end of the year, a 6-4, 6-1 lesson in power tennis. Jennifer zipped through the exhibition as if she feared she would miss recess. Many women players popcorn their shots just to keep the ball in play. Jennifer uses her size (she's already 5'6½") and speed offensively, whacking backhands that dip as if gouged by a nail file. By the end of the second set, Gildemeister was grunting and groaning like a convict sentenced to hard labor.
"Playing her was hard," says Jennifer, diplomatically. "No, I mean she hit the ball hard. I try to mix it up. I mean, not so much in this match. I didn't really think I could. I mean, not really."
Jennifer seems modest and slightly uncomfortable as the center of media attention, but she is quietly confident about her ability. A year ago she even got to hit with Martina Navratilova. "It was, like, so exciting," she says. "I couldn't believe I was actually playing against Martina. I was, like, jeez, this is how she really plays. She was strong, waaay better than the people I play. She had so many more things: more power, more shots, and her serve! I mean, that was good!"
So how's school, Jennifer?
"School's O.K.," she says with a shrug.
"It's just O.K?" interjects Stefano.
"I mean, it's not great, but it's all right for now."
"Don't say that!" says Stefano.
"What if your principal reads it?"
"Don't worry. He doesn't read."
"O.K.," she says with 13-year-old insouciance. "I like school. I really like it."
"She's straight-A student!" says Stefano. "She makes science project about topspin! She reads books!" Jennifer mentions the classics: Danielle Steel's Loving, Danielle Steel's Daddy, Danielle Steel's Zoya. "I finished Secrets in 24 hours," she says. Another junior record—she read Secrets at least 12 hours faster than Steel wrote it.
"Most people think I'm just mixed up and can't deal with life," says Jaeger. "They're all wrong. I'm happy with myself, and when you're happy with yourself, trouble can't affect you."
Except perhaps when trouble rear-ends you. In November 1988, Jaeger was sitting at a red light in her Volkswagen in Florida when another vehicle hit her from behind. She suffered whiplash and fractured two vertebrae.
Jaeger lives off her tennis winnings—a tidy $1,379,066, 17th alltime—in Aspen, where she's recovering from a second shoulder operation to correct an old playing injury. She can't raise her right hand above her head. "I'm basically lefthanded now," she says. "Sports are out. I'm only 24, and it's no fun."
Before the crash, Jaeger, who won her first pro tournament at 14 and reached the finals of Wimbledon three years later, in 1983, had been contemplating a comeback. Her brilliant career was hampered by chronic injuries, physical and psychic. Her play became so listless and erratic that she was accused of sometimes just going through the motions. Yet she insists that injuries, not burnout, finally did her in five years ago. "It's hard to get excited about playing when you're hurt all the time," she says. "You keep losing and go back to the hotel and you're all alone and think there's something wrong with you."
Most observers trace Jaeger's decline back to the 1982 U.S. Open, when, at 17, she appeared to give up at the end of a 6-1, 6-2 loss to Evert. But she dates it to the '84 French Open. She claims her shoulder popped while hitting a routine backhand in a first-round match, causing her to default. "I wanted to compete so badly," she says, "and everyone was saying I didn't want to."
Jennifer, says Jaeger, will have to learn to slough off the second-guessing that will occur if her results aren't up to expectations, if she ever loses her temper on the court or if her body begins to betray her. "If she gets hurt, people will say she started too young," says Jaeger. "If she throws a racket or swears or loses a lot of first-round matches, they'll say the pressure has gotten to her. Then she'll start thinking about the pressure, and the game really won't be fun anymore. After a few failures she'll learn that the only people who really care are friends and family."
Like Jennifer, Jaeger was coached by her old man. A former boxer, Roland Jaeger was the prototypical tennis father, pummeling the game into his daughter. He rarely complimented her play. "He wasn't a huge, domineering guy who watched my every move," she says in his defense. "I think he was great. I know how to spell my name; I don't drink or do drugs. How many fathers can say that about their kids?"
At Jennifer's age, perhaps, the danger is not that she will burn out but that she will opt out. "It's very hard to know how her character will develop when the glands start to function," says Ted Tin-ling, the ageless tennis couturier.
For now, Stefano is more concerned with Jennifer's muscles. He has her unkink them after every practice session. Her stretching regimen was prescribed by a sports medicine clinic in Virginia. Stefano took her there a year ago to be evaluated. "We didn't go because she was sick," he says, "but because she was healthy. The program is so advanced, you can prevent certain injuries."
Lying prone on a rubber mat, her legs pointing skyward, Jennifer looks slightly bored. Stefano stands behind her, flexing her legs by pulling them toward him. Jennifer scrunches with discomfort, as if she has just bitten into a lemon. "Ouch!" she says.
"Just 10 more," he says.
"Come on. Ten."
"It's killing me!"
"O.K. Just a few more."
Jennifer survives the workout and follows Stefano to a court, where he hits serve after serve to his son, Steven. She watches. "Can't I play in tournaments, too?" asks Steven.
"I don't want you to think about winning and losing," Stefano replies. "It's no good, that. First you get the stroke and then the head and then you play."
"Don't you want to see how good he is?" says Jennifer.
"No! The stroke first," says Stefano. "He has to have the stroke. I don't want him to push to win."
Stefano plans to take an equally cautious approach to Jennifer's rookie pro campaign. "She won't be out there week after week after week," he says. "As a parent, it is important to me that she enjoy her game. I want to see her smile and be happy."
Denise tells Jennifer that she'll make her a hamburger before they hit the malls. "Your burgers are no good," says Jennifer.
"Where would you like to eat, then?" says Denise.
"We can go to Burger King."
"No, that stuffs not good for you."
"O.K.," says Jennifer wearily. "I'll settle for McDonald's."