CAPRIATI LOSES HER SMILE IN DEFEAT
Daily News of Los Angeles
Wednesday, January 22, 1992
Steve Wilstein, Associated Press
Jennifer Capriati's dark eyes brimmed with tears. Her voice trembled. Her face wore a blank, pale expression of shock.
The teen-age tennis machine, clanking out money with every endorsement and match, was transformed into a sad, vulnerable 15-year-old after losing to Gabriela Sabatini, 6-4, 7-6 (7-1), in Tuesday's Australian Open quarterfinals.
She spoke of pressures and expectations -- her own and those foisted on her -- and couldn't find the words to explain an utter collapse Tuesday night against the third seed.
Six straight unforced errors to start a second-set tie-breaker. Wildly mis-hit shots. Lapses in concentration. Clever, aggressive play by a mature opponent.
It all added up to a finish that sent Sabatini into the semifinals against Mary Joe Fernandez and left Capriati to cry over her lost chances.
"I'm disappointed in myself," she said, quavering. "I know that people were expecting a great match. I think there is some pressure, actually a lot of pressure from everyone, maybe because it has become much more serious now. I feel it a little more."
The innocent delight Capriati took in playing pro tennis, win or lose, since her debut as a precocious, giggly 14-year-old had been missing since she arrived for her first Australian Open . She won her first four matches easily, all in straight sets, but took no pleasure in them. Gone was that effervescent enthusiasm that made her so popular with fans, players and the press.
Instead, she seemed grimly determined to move up from her No. 6 ranking, to get past the semifinals reached at the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and French Open, and finally win a Grand Slam. She wanted it all so much and so quickly that any setback here inevitably would hurt.
Her mood, and the pressure she appeared to be under, recalled the tribulations of young "burnout" victims who succumbed to the stress of constant travel and competition.
Capriati may be an industry unto herself - endorsing five companies while globetrotting with her parents, coach, agent and tutor - but until lately she had been surviving with a sense of humor and adventure the whirlwind that surrounded her.
"I have to really work at it to try and keep up there and to keep playing well," she said after her loss, showing character and maturity just by enduring an obviously painful post-match news conference. "Of course, it's still fun, but it's just that I have to really concentrate now and settle down and really think about it."
The U.S. Open loss to Monica Seles after serving for the match still galls Capriati, who considers it her biggest disappointment. This one is a close second, and it means she won't get another chance at Seles here.
Sabatini, in her prime at 21, six years after turning pro, alternately slugged it out with Capriati from the baseline and chose her moments to attack.She broke Capriati's opening service at 30-40 with her first foray to the net, putting away a soft backhand volley crosscourt that Capriati couldn't touch.
Capriati showed her grittiness in the third game, fending off two break points and holding serve after seven deuces. More significantly, it was during that game that Capriati last flashed the pleasant, easy smile she used to show so often.
She had just whacked a forehand long for an unforced error to waste her sixth game point, and she turned for support to her parents in the second row of the stands. She and her mother, Denise, smiled warmly to each other, and in that brief exchange the pressure temporarily melted away.
Capriati won the next nine points and 16 of 18 - holding serve, breaking Sabatini at love with the help of two strong volleys, holding again at 40-15 on a crisp, unreachable backhand, and breaking once more on a backhand pass at 15-40 for a 4-2 lead.
But Capriati's roll ended as suddenly as it began. Sabatini won the first of four straight games to take the set, volleying spectacularly and passing Capriati when she ventured to the net.
The streaky nature of the match was intensified in the second set - Sabatini taking a 3-1 lead, Capriati coming back to go ahead 4-3 after winning 13 of 14 points. Both effectively mixed baseline and net games, going for broke on volleys and overheads, jumping on second serves. It was high-level tennis.
But Capriati was hard on herself at the end, annoyed by an easy overhead she missed long at 0-15 when she led, 6-5, in the second set. That would have put her within two points of evening the match. Instead, Sabatini seized the opportunity and won the game with a forehand passing shot.
The artistry ended there. Capriati played the tie-breaker as if in a daze, quickly going from bad shot to bad shot with no plan, no pause to consider what she was doing.
"It just happened so fast that I didn't know what was happening," she said. "I didn't have time to think about it."
Capriati lost the first point on her serve when she knocked a backhand wide crosscourt, then mis-hit a forehand wide the other way. She lost the next four points on a variety of backhand miscues -- one on a return, two on baseline rallies, another on a half-volley.
At 6-0 and match point, she finally hit a backhand winner, but by then it was virtually impossible to come back. Sabatini reached up for a shallow lob from Capriati and returned a backhand overhead at match point.
"She made a lot of mistakes in the tie-breaker," Sabatini said. "I didn't do anything special. I was just serving or hitting a return, and she was just missing."
Sabatini sympathized with Capriati's anxiety, recalling her own worries as a teen-ager and her thoughts about quitting tennis before she won the U.S. Open.
"I think everybody has to go through those moments," Sabatini said. "It's something she has to work on, that's all. I had my doubts about playing tennis. I was not enjoying tennis. I just tried to keep working hard and be patient, and one day everything just started to open."
Sabatini's agent, Dick Dell, said he's seen other young players go through periods of pressure similar to Capriati.
"She's a great player, so close to being the best," he said. "She's so advanced already, it's just a matter of time for things to click. She could have won that match. She could have beaten Monica (at the U.S. Open). Her time will come. She's too good to fail. She just has to be patient and not let the pressure get to her."