Jennifer Capriati - the 14-year-old girl who conquered the world (Part I)

Tennis - Capriati had a chance to play in the final of her very first WTA tournament at the age of 13 in 1990

by Jovica Ilic
Jennifer Capriati - the 14-year-old girl who conquered the world (Part I)

Throughout the history of the WTA Tour, we had some amazing teenagers who competed with success versus the much older, stronger and experienced rivals against all odds. One who especially stands out is Jennifer Capriati, a New Yorker destined to become the tennis champion and the one of a kind after taking a rollercoaster ride that took her to the top 10 years after all had expected that to happen, coming from the rock bottom a few times to prove her immense talent and class and end the career among the tennis immortals.

In this article, we will recall Jennifer's 1990 season that propelled her to the pinnacle of the WTA Tour at the age of 14, setting some records that will never be beaten and showing the spirit of a champion that is rarely seen at such a young age in any sport. Born in March 1976, Capriati never had the rivals in her age group, winning the Orange Bowl in U12 and U14 categories and her first US Open junior match in 1988 at the age of 12, also becoming the national U18 champion! The best was yet to come a year later when she conquered the Roland Garros junior title, Wimbledon doubles crown and both the singles and doubles at the US Open, all at the age of 13 when her coevals were just making the first steps on the junior circuit.

Jennifer had no intention to stay on that level and dominate against the opponents who had nothing to match her tennis arsenal or to improve her game in any kind of way, and she was ready to try her luck against the world's finest players on the WTA Tour, making her professional debut at Boca Raton in March 1990, still at the age of 13.

In October last year, Jennifer and her team went to Florida to ask Nick Bollettieri is he could work with her but he had to refuse that, already training Monica Seles and Andre Agassi. With or without Nick, Capriati (she was working with Rick Macci who is one of the most important elements in her instant success) was ready to rumble against much older rivals, equipped with amazing physical strength at her age, great serve and outstanding footwork and groundstroke that could trouble the players from the very top of the game.

The sponsors were already there, as Jennifer signed a five-year endorsement with Diadora even before playing her first professional match, in what was the third biggest contract behind those of Steffi Graf and Chris Evert who wasn't active anymore.

On March 6, Capriati had left the nearby house of Chris Evert to enter The Polo Club in Boca Raton for her maiden pro match, defeating Mary Lou Daniels 7-6 6-1 to notch her first pro win at the age of 13. In addition, she had a chance to play the doubles as well with the one and only Billie Jean King and it was another great experience for the super talented kid (King was helping Capriati to improve her volleys and other elements in her game since 1989).

The next Sunday, Jennifer was the youngest WTA finalist after toppling Claudia Porwik, Nathalie Tauziat, Helena Sukova (her first Top 10 win) and Laura Arraya (Capriati was 4-2 down in both sets), setting the thrilling final encounter against world number 3 Gabriela Sabatini.

Capriati was the main tennis news around the world and she was forced to train at private locations in Florida to avoid the photographers and journalists, and despite some shaky moments on the court she managed to prevail in the pivotal points and propel her into the final, one step from making the perfect debut on the big tennis scene.

Sabatini was the first player that week who had managed to control the pace and move Jennifer around the court, taking the timing off her shots and enduring the rallies with the youngster to score a 6-4 7-5 triumph. Sabatini's topspin proved to be too hard to handle for Jenni and she broke rival's rhythm with drop shots and net rushings.

Evert was confident about Capriati finishing in the Top 10 that season and she could not have been more right in these predictions! The 13-year-old tennis phenomenon was ready for the next challenge at the Lipton International Players Championships in Miami.

Just like on her debut, Capriati scored another win over the player from the Top 10 but she lost 6-2 6-4 in the battle for the quarter-final against Nathalie Herreman. It was time for the Family Circle Cup in Hilton Head and clay in the first week of April and the 14-year-old girl had shown her brilliance once again, demolishing Arantxa Sánchez Vicario 6-1 6-1 en route to her second WTA final in three tournaments played! There, Martina Navratilova waited and the youngster suffered a 6-2 6-4 defeat after 73 minutes, missing another chance of winning the WTA title.

This was Martina's 150th title and she earned it with a serve&volley game on fast Har-Tru clay that left Capriati with no answer, unable to draw the legend into the longer rallies or to impose her groundstrokes. Martina grabbed two breaks in the opening set and she closed the match with a good hold in the 10th game of the second, previously breaking Capriati twice.

On April 9, the 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati had made her WTA rankings list debut as the world number 25, but she wanted much more than that, which she will prove in the following months. Capriati had moved to Europe and reached the quarter-final in Rome where Sabatini took her down 6-2 7-5 after a great fight in the second set, and the young American was ready for her Grand Slam debut at the Roland Garros, just a year after winning the junior title there.

Nothing could stop Capriati in the opening four matches, taking advantages of the favorable draw to lose just 14 in games in total en route to her maiden Major quarter-final where she toppled world number 8 Mary Joe Fernandez 6-2 6-4 on the Center Court for the place in the last four! Fernandez double faulted to give the opening set away and Capriati was too strong in the crucial moments of the second as well, blasting a backhand return winner in the 10th game to seal the deal and move into the semis where she faced another huge prospect Monica Seles.

Capriati wrote history as the youngest player in the semi-final of the Grand Slam event but the 16-year-old proved to be too strong for her, converting her sixth match point to set up the dream final with Steffi Graf. The match lasted 62 minutes and it was Seles' groundstrokes that kept Jennifer on the baseline, running from left to right and back in order to defend and create any chance for attack.

The young Serb showed no intentions in allowing her that, hardly missing a ball in the entire match and staying focused despite that last charge from Capriati and those match points wasted. The American managed to hold serve only once and she gave her serve away three times after double faults.

After such a great Parisian run, Jennifer had entered the Top 20 on June 11 and she was the youngest ever seed at Wimbledon after playing just six WTA tournaments in the last three months!

Jennifer Capriati