A few weeks after her pro debut, the Capriati mania keeps going on:

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the month of April all the indoor tournaments are over. The marking time after the Australian Open is finished. The game moves to the clay courts, and everyone begins looking ahead to the next Grand Slam, the French Open.

Clay has always been thought as the surface of Europeans and South Americans. The red clay of Roland Garros, in Paris, and the Foro Italico, in Rome, are part of the sport’s heritage, and players from the Continent and from South America do grow up on, and for the most part, do most of their playing stuff.

[…] Since the Open left Forest Hills for the hard courts of Flushing Meadow in 1978, there has been no great clay-court tournament in the United States. The US Clay Court Championships, once played in Indianapolis, died there in the mid 1980s when the courts were paved (to induce the men to play there before the US Open). The USTA still runs a US Clay Court Championships in May, but very few players ranked in the top one hundred ever show up.

The women still have Hilton Head, though. For the past eighteen years, they have played the Family Circle Cup at the Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head, South Carolina. It represents the opening of the clay-court season for the women and has the feel of a big tournament, though it still retains the charm of a small one. The stadium at the Sea Pines Racquet Club seats about five thousand people. It is surrounded by soaring South Carolina pines which give the place a feeling of isolation. The real world seems much farther away than just across a bridge that leads to the honky-tonk towns and paper mills of the South Carolina and Georgia marsh country.

The field for this tournament is always strong. The prize money is as high as a non-Grand Slam women’s tournament (other than the Lipton) can be: $500,000 meaning that, under Women’s Tennis association rules, at least one of the top two-, two of the top four-, and four of the top eight-ranked players must be entered. In 1990, Navratilova was there, Arantxa Sanchez was there, Zina Garrison was there, and so was Natalia Zvereva. But they were not the stars of this week.

Jennifer Capriati was at Hilton Head, courtesy of Gerry Smith’s string-pulling. The only people pulling harder for her to make it to the weekend than Smith were the ones from NBC. For them a Navratilova-Capriati final would be straight out of Fantasy Island. Not only would they have a classic princess-grand dame matchup, they would have it with the grand dame’s pal and the princess’ hero/mentor – Christine Marie Evert herself – making her network debut in the commentary booth.[…]

And so it was that The Queen came to Hilton Head with the network hoping that The Kid would come through. She did – with flying colors. Still unseeded because she didn’t yet have a ranking, Capriati had to play Sanchez in the third round. No problem: 6-1 6-1. In the quarters, Capriati struggled a little against Helen Kelesi, but roared back to win. Now NBC and Gerry Smith had part of their wish – Capriati had made it to Saturday’s telecast. She would play Zvereva in one semifinal. Navratilova would play a lanky young Czech named Regina Rajchrtova, a quarterfinal over Garrison.

Naturally, Capriati-Zvereva would be the Saturday TV match. To ensure that the court would be clear for The Princess when NBC came on the air at 2 pm, the other semifinal was scheduled for 11:30. This did not exactly please Navratilova. She didn’t relish the role of second fiddle, so she took her sweet time getting ready to go out and play. It was almost 11:50 before the match – which she won in a romp – actually began.

Navratilova may not have been thrilled with all the Capriati mania, but she understood it.

“She’s a fresh face, the new kid on the block, everybody loves her,” she said. “I understand that. It’s amazing how young she is, though. I had been on tour three years before she was born.”

Navratilova was in the final. And after she destroyed Zvereva, so was Capriati, who by now was joyiding though the whole thing. She had a crew fom HBO (which had reportedly paid the family well into six figures) dogging her for a documentary; she had a million questions on her friendship with Chris, and she had boys and men making eyes at her. When the HBO producer told her that a twenty-three-year-old had described her as “hot”, Capriati rolled her eyes and said, “Oh God, don’t tell my father.” She also confided to friends that she had dreamed about TV star Johnny Depp and had a serious crush on Stefan Edberg. The Kid was growing up fast.

But she still sounded like a kid when she talked. When someone asked her about giving Zvereva a crucial point – overruling a call that had gone in her favor – she shrugged. “I just wanted to be fair. The ball was good? I should still have done the other points good.”
As for playing Navratilova, well, that was really something.

“I mean, it shows I’m up there with the great players, I guess,” she said. “I mean, I always watched her play, and now I’ll be out there on the court with her. To be out there with her will be great, you know, she’s really a lege.”

Sunday was something straight out of a fairy tale: gorgeous and sunny, the little stadium sparkling, with the trees rustling in the spring breeze. Andy Mill admitted that the Capriati-Navratilova matchup made his wife a little nervous.

“I told Chrissie she shouldn’t try to sugarcoat the situation,” he said. “She and Martina are certainly friends, but she’s closer to Jennifer. One is a friend, the other is a protégée.”

[…]Evert turned thirty-five in December – three months and eight days before Capriati hit fourteen. Now she sat in the TV booth with Dick Enberg as Capriati raced on court two steps ahead of Navratilova – “I wanted to get my lucky chair,” she said – while Navratilova was nearly knocked over by the NBC cameraman pursuing the teenager. She was not amused.

That was Martina’s last bad moment of the day, though. She was still The Lege and played near-perfect tennis to beat The Kid 6-2 6-4 in seventy-five minutes. Capriati hardly seemed bothered by it all. During the awards ceremony she thanked just about everyone on the planet, and when Bud Collins, the master of ceremonies, started to pull the microphone back, thinking she was finished, Capriati grabbed it back. “Wait a minute, I’m not finished.”
Collins, who knows a star when he sees one, dutifully handed the mike over. Navratilova was thrilled to win – “God, it was nerve-wracking!” she said – and Capriati was thrilled to be Capriati. NBC got the highest rating it had ever gotten on the Family Circle Cup, and a higher rating than it would get on the Wimbledon final. Evert’s reviews weren’t great, but they weren’t bad. Gerry Smith couldn’t stop grinning. And why not?

The Kid had come through like … well … like a Lege.