Capriati and Sabatini, Boca Raton 1990

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

Long before she played her first match as a professional, Jennifer Capriati was the hottest thing going in women’s tennis. Labeled a prodigy at the age of nine and, without having hit a ball yet as a pro, a thriving corporation at the age of thirteen, she had already been the subject of lenghty stories in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The National, and the rest of the world would follow shortly. Each would tell essentially the same story:
Capriati was the oldest of Stefano and Denise Capriati’s two children. Stefano was Italian; Denise, American. They had met in Spain; Denise had lounging by the pool when Stefano had popped his head out of the water and asked her to dinner. He was fifty-four, she was thirty-nine. He was dark and stocky, she was blond, petite, and very pretty. He had played soccer, worked in real estate and, for the past ten years, focused much of his life on Jennifer. Denise was a flight attendant. They had moved from Fort Lauderdale, where Jennifer had taken lessons from Chris Evert’s father, at age five, to Saddlebrook, a tennis resort. There, the people who rran the resort, the USTA and anyone else who could get in the door, fought to take credit for Jennifer’s prowess.

Jennifer Capriati wasn’t just another teenager who could stand at the back of the court and bang ground strokes all day. Forst and perhaps foremost, she was American. Born on Long Island, raised in Florida (after a brief interlude in Spain), she was an all-American girl who happened to be very pretty. She had her father’s dark skin and broad shoulders and her mother’s attractive features.
Women’s tennis was desperately in need of American star with sex appeal. Even at thirteen it was apparent Capriati was the answer. Ever since Chris Evert had first flashed across the tennis horizon in 1971 en route to icon status, tennis had been in search of the next Chrissie. Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger had burned out. Pam Shriver never won Grand Slam singles titles. Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini weren’t American. Neither was Monica Seles, even if she had lived in Florida for four years, even if she did speak English with a midwestern accent.
Everyone in tennis has always agreed on the need for American stars. When no American-born male reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament in 1986, near panic set in. That was why Andre Agassi became so rich so fast when he began to win in 1988. He was the American that sponsors, television people, bureaucrats, and fans were starving for.
The situation had never gotten quite that desperate on the women’s side. Evert was still a top-five player right up until she retired, at the 1989 US Open, and Martina Navratilova was accepted as an American by some, if not by all. Starting out 1990, though, the only American-born player in the Top ten was Zina Garrison, who was black. The people who control the money in tennis – corporations – don’t think there is much market for a black player in their sport. As a result, Garrison, the fourth-ranked player in the world, didn’t even have a shoe or clothing contact.

That was where Capriati came in. By age nine, agents and manufacturers were already negotiating with her father. She was wearing Ellesse clothing by the time she was ten. Cino Marchese, the IMG agent who is the majordomo of the Italian Open, remembers having a handshake agreement with Stefano to bring his daughter to the Italian Open when she turned pro. Jennifer was nine when the two men shook hands.
In 1989 Capriati won both the French and US Open junior titles, confirming her status as The Next One. Already, the Women’s Professional Tennis Council was passing what would become known as “Capriati Rules”. The first (Capriati I) stated that a player could not participate in professional events before turning fourteen. The second (Capriati II) amended that to say that a player could play a pro event in the same month that she turned fourteen. Capriati turned fourteen on March 29; Boca began on March 5. What a coincidence! The press release announcing the amendment specifically said that these rule changes were not aimed at Jennifer Capriati. (And Zina Garrison’s lack of a clothing contract had nothing to do with her being black…) […]

Capriati was entered in the tournament as a wild card since she didn’t have any points on the computer yet. Every tennis tournament reserves several places in its draw for wildcards – Boca Raton had two spots saved – in case a big star decides to enter at the last minute or an injured player comes back from an injury or an up-and-coming young player comes along. Wild cards are frequently abused by tournament directors, but in Boca they had been used perfectly. the two wild cards were Capriati and Anke Huber, the fifteen-year-old German who, in Australia, had been dubbed the next Graf.

Huber wasn’t about to get noticed this week, though. It was as if the rest of the tennis world had become invisible; This would turn out ot be a wild and fascinating tournament, but no one would pay attention. Jen-Jen mania was completely out of control. […]

Tuesday, March 6, was the day the hype finally became reality. By this time Capriati had been forced to sneak off to faraway courts in order to practice in private. Evert had gone off to Aspen for the week to leave the stage clean for her protégée. The day was hot and sunny. Capriati-Mary Lou Daniels was the fifth match on the schedule. By noon there was chaos in the press tent because there weren’t enough seats to go round. There was no press section, so seats in the stands had to be found, and there were not very many of them available.
By 3:40 the stands were packed and the crowd was restless. The previous match had been over for twenty minutes but there was no sign of Capriati. Finally, at 3:43, Capriati and Mary Lou Daniels appeared. They walked exactly three feet onto the court and were besieged by photographers. They stopped and posed. And posed. And posed.
Daniels was almost a perfect opening-day opponent for Capriati. She was twenty-eight, married, and had been featured in commercials for Coast soap at one point. She had once been ranked as high as No. 15 on the computer, but that was eight years ago, when she was still fresh-faced Mary Lou Piatek. […]

Seeing her up close for the first time, amny in the crowd were surprised by her side. Still three weeks away from fourteen, Capriati was almost five feet seven and weighed at least 130, perhaps more. None of it was fat, though; she was simply big boned and extremely mature.

“She doesn’t hit the ball like a thirteen-year-old,” Daniels said. “She hits more like Steffi Graf.”

Capriati’s nerves and Daniels’ competence kept the first set close. Capriati lost the first point of her career – history will record that it came at 3:57 pm, when she netted a backhand – but quickly won the first three games. Daniels came back to lead 6-5, but Capriati won the tiebreak 7-1, then won the second set easily, 6-1. It had taken seventy minutes.
Everyone was happy. The crowd knew it had seen the real thing and responded with a standing ovation. Daniels was impressed. “She’s worth all the hype,” she said. Other players who had wandered out to watch were equally impressed. “Gee, I wish I had brought my camera,” Pam Shriver said, watching all the commotion. Stefano was happy, too, accepting congratulations from all sides. John Evert (Chris sister and Capriati’s agent), who from that day forth would be knwon in the media as “Colonel Parker” was thrilled to see that the kid could handle it all.
Even the ravenous media was happy. When Capriati came in to a jammed press conference, someone asked her about what she thought of the whole experience.

“Well, she I think playing my first match was great. But the media is really sort of out of control.”

The rest of the week was all Jen-Jen. In the second round, she recovered from losing the second set 6-0 to Claudia Porwik to win her first three-setter. She upset eighth-seeded Nathalie Tauziat and crushed No. 4 Helena Sukova 6-4 -1 in the quarterfinals. Then she beat Gildemeister in the semis. In five days she had won five matches, beating three top-twenty players along the way. She also played doubles with Billie Jean King, even winning a first round match.
Capriati’s joyride ended in the final, when Sabatini beat her 6-4 7-5. But it didn’t matter. the match was close, the crowd loved the whole thing, and it proved that as good as the kid was, she was human. People were beginning to wonder.

What made it all so appealing was Jen-Jen herself. She was completely thirteen, full of giggles and “I means” and “you knows.”
John Evert had advised the Capriatis not to hire a media trainer, at least for the moment. Evert figured – correctly – that a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old who sounded like a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old would be much more appealing than someone who sounded trained.
Virginia Slims, image conscious to a fault, had kept a media trainer on staff for years. More often than not, this training was beneficial to the players although one could tell from a hundred miles away when a player had just been through the sessions. Seles, for example, never referred to a tournament as just “Washington” or “Houston”; it was always “Virginia Slims of Washington” or “Virginia Slims of Houston.”

For now, Capriati would be allowed to be herself. She mouthed all the appropriate clichés and charmed everyone right out of their socks. When the week was over, there was no doubt that a star had been born and that Jen-Jen mania would continue unabated for quite a while. Bud Collins summed it up best when the tournament was over.

“What was that old broad’s name?” he asked. “Everet? Evette? Played twenty years ago, right?”

In 1990 at the Virginia Slims of Capriati in the year of Jen-Jen I, Chris Evert might as well have played twenty years ago.

Ivan Lendl, Australian Open 1990

Extract from Hard Courts by John Feinstein

Edberg-Wilander and Lendl-Noah figured to be good matchups, especially given Noah‘s defeat of Lendl in Sydney. But this was the real thing now, not a little warm-up tournament. Lendl lost seven games, needing just an hour and forty-six minutes to bludgeon Noah.

“I liked the way he played better in Sydney,” Noah said. “He was much nicer there. He missed and missed. Today he didn’t miss.”

Lendl‘s performance was nothing compared to what Edberg did to Wilander. He needed even less time – an hour and twenty-two minutes – and gave up only four games in one of the most dominant performances anyone could ever remember seeing.

“Oh, that was wonderful,” Ted Tinling cried, coming off court. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more brilliant. It was beautiful to watch.”

Edberg wasn’t the same player in the final that he had been in the semifinals by any means, but there was a good reason: late in the Wilander match, he had pulled a stomach muscle.
Even injured, Edberg managed to win the first set and go up a break at 6-5 in the second. But Lendl, who had seen the trainer come out to treat Edberg and knew something was amiss, hung in. Despite a bad case of nerves, he broke back and won the tiebreak. He was up 5-2 in the third when Edberg, shaking his head, dejectedly walked up to the chair.

“I can’t play,” he said simply. “I have to stop.”

It was not a complete surprise when Edberg retired from the match, but it was a flat, damp ending to a tournament that had seemed jinxed from the beginning.

Edberg, almost doubled over in pain, hobbled off, leaving Lendl alone to accept his award. Lendl is a pragmatist, and winning his eighth Grand Slam title was no small thing. He had been in Australia for a month, working toward his goal. But even he knew this was no way to win a championship.

“I’m sorry the match ended the way it did,” he told the crowd. “I feel badly for Stefan. I hope next year we get a chance to slug it out until the end.”

They handed Lendl the trophy at 5:30pm. It was exactly one week – to the minute – since McEnroe had been defaulted on the same court.

1991 Davis Cup final

Extract from Hard Courts by John Feinstein

Anyone who cares about tennis had to be warmed by the performance of the French in Lyon. After retiring as a full-time player at the end of 1990, Yannick Noah was named captain of the French team. When they reached the final, they were given little chance against the US team.

Noah took a bold gamble, choosing Henri Leconte as his second singles player along with Guy Forget. Leconte had undergone his thid back operation in the summer and was thirty pounds overweight six weeks before the match. But, given a chance by Noah, he worked himself into shape and then became the hero of the final, first by beating Pete Sampras to tie things up at 1-1 on the first day (Andre Agassi had beaten Guy Forget in the opener), and then by pairing with Forget to beat Ken Flach and Robert Seguso in the doubles. That made it 2-1 and set the stage for Forget’s victory over Sampras that clinched the Cup.

It was the first time since 1932, in the days of the French Musketeers, that France had won the Cup, and the celebration the French victory set off was a stark contrast to the ho-hum-who-cares victory celebration the Americans had staged a year earlier in St. Petersburg after beating Australia.

To France, this was a crusade, not the kind of crude, win at-all-costs crusade staged by then USTA President Markin in 1990, but a crusade filled with hard work, self-confidence, and remarkable spirit. To the American players, it had been a chance to pick up some extra dough in perfomance bonuses and endorsement deals. Agassi (who for all his problems in ’91, emerged as a solid Davis Cup player) managed to insult the host country by complaining about the weather in Hawaii. Leave it to Andre to head for McDonald’s in the gastronomic capital of the world.

Extract from Hard Courts by John Feinstein

The person many people were picking to win was the new No.1 – Edberg. he was, without question, the hottest player in the world. In fact, he had not lost a match since the Bruguera debacle in Paris – a streak of twenty-one matches and fou tournaments. He had won all three events he had entered after Wimbledon: Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and the Hamlet Cup, on Long Island, the week prior to the Open.

In the past, Edberg had played two weeks before the Open and then taken off the week before it began. He had changed that this year because of a new touring-pro deal he had signed with the Hamlet, a golf/tennis resort that had once employed Jimmy Arias as its touring pro. Part of the deal – which was worth $2 million for four years – was that the touring pro played in the Hamlet tournament. Edberg not only played, he won it, playing three matches the last two days because of rain delays.

That may have had nothing to do with what happened to him on the second morning of the tournament. After all, his pre-Open preparations in the past had not produced sterling results, so a change might not have been a bad idea. Or maybe it was.

In any event, Edberg showed up for his match with Alexander Volkov with the hangdog look he had worn in Paris. He didn’t play quite as poorly as he had against Bruguera, but he came close. Once again he was bounced from the first round of a Grand Slam and once again it was in straight sets.

“I just never felt comfortable,” Edberg said. “I can’t tell you why. I thought I would do well here. But it’s all over now.”

Volkov had been so certain he would lose that he had committed to play in German League matches that weekend.

“I was supposed to fly out of here tomorrow,” he said. “I was surprised Stefan played so poorly.”

Volkov made it to his German League commitment. The day after beating Edberg, he lost to Todd Witsken in straight sets – winning only seven games.
Almost everyone had expected an Edberg-Lendl semifinal in the top half of the draw. Now that was out of the question. But the craziness was just beginning.

Extract from Hard Courts by John Feinstein

Almost without fail, the shocking upsets during the first week of a Grand Slam take place on the men’s side. The top women are just too strong to lose an early round match.
The Open began exactly that way: Monica Seles, playing the first match of the tournament, started with a 6-0 6-0 victory over Elena Pampoulova. Steffi Graf dropped two games in her first match; Martina Navratilova dropped four; Zina Garrison, four; and Gabriela Sabatini, two. By the end of the first week, though, the women had the kind of delightful chaos on their hands that’s usually reserved for the men. The first to fall, in what may have been the single most stunning upset of the year in the women’s game, was Seles.

There had been some hints that Seles might be vulnerable. She had shown up in Los Angeles wielding a Yonex racquet, part of a huge multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal she had signed with the company after Wimbledon. This was all well and good, but Yonex had insisted, as part of the deal, that Seles use the racquet at the Open.

Seles had been playing with a Prince – with pretty fair results – and to ask her to change racquets two weeks before a Grand Slam was a mistake. But Yonex wanted to make a splashy pre-Open announcement, and IMG ans Seles’ army of advisers didn’t want to chance losing the deal.
So, they chanced losing the Open. Seles had won Los Angeles, beating Navratilova in a wonderful final. But it had been clear there that she wasn’t hitting the ball with the same authority as in Europe. She was still plenty good and would no doubt get better as she grew accustomed to the racquet, but a lot of people wondered if it would affect her at the Open.

It did. Seles lost in the third round to Linda Ferrando, a twenty-four year old Italian ranked eighty-second in the world – seven spots below Elena Pampoulova. Seles had practiced with Ferrando earlier in the year, in Chicago, but had completely forgotten the session. She expected her to stay back.
Ferrando, after dropping the first set 6-1, began attacking on almost every point. She won the second set 6-1 and led throughout the third. She even had three match points but couldn’t convert them, making choky errors on each one. It looked as if Seles would escape when they went to a tiebreak in the final set. Only, she didn’t.
Ferrando jumped ahead in the tiebreak, and when she got to match point again, she made sure she didn’t choke. She charged in behind a backhand return, and Seles, trying to hit a perfect shot, smacked a backhand into the net tape. She let out a tiny shriek of surprise and anguish, then dealt with the defeat graciously.

“I never thought she would come back after I won the first set 6-1,” she said. “I think I just got nervous at the end.”

Ferrando was still in a little bit of shock.

“I can’t tell you why I won,” she said. “Maybe I can tell you tomorrow.”

In tennis, you have to come up with the answer today because, by tomorrow, you may be forgotten. Ferrando was a case in point: two days after beating Seles, she lost in straight sets to Leila Meshki.