Dream Teen

Jennifer Capriati put aside adolescent angst to win the gold medal in the women's singles
August 16, 1992

The hardest part of being a teenager is deciding what kind of teenager to be. Do you join the cool group or the Latin club? Become a biker or a mall rat? And when you're the most famous 16-year-old tennis player in the world, wherever do you go to make up your mind?

Jennifer Capriati found the place over the past two weeks, in the sprawling arcade of the Olympics, where you can try on and discard roles as if they were Benetton pullovers. One moment she was a computer hacker, tapping into the Games-wide electronic mail system. The next she was a Deadhead, donning a tie-dyed T-shirt to meet the press and explain how she had upset Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semifinals despite the grand entrance of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía in midmatch. "I didn't know who they were," said Capriati. "I shouldn't say this, but I was thinking, Couldn't they wait until the changeover?"

Then she was in the Olympic Village, queen of the cafeteria. "You just look for an open seat and sit down, and right away it's great," said Capriati. "You start a conversation with 'What country are you from? What sport?' "

Finally, she had a gold medal hanging from her neck. For the first time in her career she had defeated Steffi Graf. It was a splendid match, which Capriati won more than Graf lost. You've heard about the Dream Team to the point of nausea; here was a Dream Teen living a teen dream. The Olympic tournament was far more than just another tour stop, Capriati insisted, while absently twisting a lock of her hair with a forefinger, "because of the Village and medals and stuff."

So ended an intermezzo in which Capriati and her game had gone sullen. After her quarterfinal loss to Gabriela Sabatini at the Australian Open last January, she reportedly pitched fits at her father, Stefano, over her heavy schedule. At the Upton International in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March, Jennifer was a chunky, acned vessel of hormones, a kid so lost in a fog of adolescent alienation that she couldn't string together more than a few guttural sounds for conversation.

Those close to her say that they had never seen her happier than she was during the Olympics. She had hired Manolo Santana, the former Spanish champion, to work with her in the weeks leading up to the Games, but Santana hadn't made their sessions seem like work. Thus, Capriati brought a lightness to the finals. When she failed to convert any of nine break points in the fifth game of the first set, which Graf won 6-3, Capriati didn't get discouraged. "It actually gave me confidence," she would say. "If I was giving her a hard time on her serve, it put a little more pressure on her."

Feeding Graf's backhand, Capriati took the second set 6-3. Soon she found herself serving for the gold at 5-4 in the third. U.S. women's coach Marty Riessen turned to team leader Bob Garry in the stands and whispered, "This is going to be the toughest game to play." Moments later Riessen amended that, saying, "Well, it would have been a tough game for me. She hits an ace."

Capriati's reaction to her victory was one of relief as much as joy. For other medalists, however, different emotions were at play. Before falling to Marc Rosset in the semifinals of the men's singles, Goran Ivanisevic slogged through four straight five-set matches on scorching red clay to earn a bronze medal for Croatia. Piet Norval and Wayne Ferreira of South Africa got the silver in men's doubles to give that country its first Olympic medal since 1960. Switzerland's only medal came thanks to Rosset, who won the men's singles by beating Jordi Arrese of Spain in the finals. Those results, plus the bronze that Andrei Cherkasov of the soon-to-be-history Unified Team earned in men's singles, suggest that most of the tennis medals were distributed as they should have been: to those to whom they meant the most.

Yet for the Olympic tournament to become bigger than Wimbledon, as John McEnroe suggests it might, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) will have to do something to distinguish the tournament from the other events on the calendar. Boris Becker, who with Michael Stich won the men's doubles for Germany, advocates a more team-oriented format that includes mixed doubles. At the very least, everyone should be required to compete in national uniforms. It was absurd to see Ivanisevic, an outspoken nationalist, wearing the kangaroo logo of a sportswear company on his shirt as if he were just another Aussie.

Capriati must have been glad she gave in to the lobbying of Mary Joe Fernandez, who won the women's doubles with Gigi Fernandez (no relation), and wore the U.S. uniform, including a skirt with American flag patches. The sight of other U.S. athletes on medal stands over the previous two weeks had given Capriati chills. "I was just, like, with them when they were up there," she said after winning the gold. "It would be so cool to be up there, like, really unbelievable. And here I got a chance!"

She had more to say, but the microphone at the press conference was misbehaving. It was a shame, because for the first time in nearly a year she wanted to connect with that horrible, unfeeling, adult-run world. "What," she asked the media, "if I just talked really loud?"

PHOTOMANNY MILLANFor the first time in five matches against Capriati, Graf found herself in over her head. PHOTOMANNY MILLANWithout a title in '92, Capriati didn't seem to have a leg to stand on going into the Games. ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)