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Capriati flies high after 'crazy' 1990


ROME -- She took off like a jet last year, climbing higher and higher. Now Jennifer Capriati has leveled off, at high altitude.

"The attention has died a lot," Capriati said before her first match at the Italian Open. "Last year I was new and everything. They were all over me. Now everyone knows what I'm like. And there's so much more going on. The attention doesn't have to be focused on me."

Women's tennis has become a Broadway show with a full cast of characters. There is Monica Seles, the new leading lady; Steffi Graf, the old star, trying to regain her status; Gabriela Sabatini, who could be pushing past both; Martina Navratilova, the fading grande dame.

Capriati is still the kid, 15 now, the Florida teen-ager with ability far beyond her years. Happy to have a little elbow room.

"It got crazy last year, but I got used to it," Capriati said. "Still, there were a few times when I wanted to tell everyone to get away and let me have a little privacy. Now I like things the way they are. At home in Saddlebrook I'm not bothered. And here it's been nice."

Capriati hit town last year like Cleopatra. Everyone wanted to see the new princess of tennis, who reached the final in her first tournament, in Boca Raton, Fla.

"It was understandable. The girl had won all these international junior titles, but everything that goes up must equalize," said Stefano Capriati, her father. "The press is not so pushy now. But the people like to see Jennifer. In Boca they were screaming and cheering for her again. The same at Lipton and Hilton Head."

The mania for Capriati boomed in 1990. There were Sports Illustrated and Newsweek covers, an HBO special and commercials.

"In the last 20 years, the two players who have made the most noise in tennis have been Andre Agassi and Jennifer," said John Evert, Capriati's agent. "When Agassi got to No. 4 his second season, it was crazy, but it was more crazy with Capriati. I was getting 40, 50 calls a day last year, a lot of it press, and Jennifer was getting hundreds of fan letters.

"It's quieted down. After the first year, there is always a little letdown. And that's good. It would have been too much if Jennifer had played her whole career the way things were last year. This year Jennifer is more focused on tennis, and she's been able to enjoy being 15."

Capriati reached the Top 10 at the end of last year -- she is currently 12th -- and she hopes to stay there this year.

"I'm not expecting a lot," said Capriati, who is 7-4 this year with losses to Helena Sukova (Chicago), Sabatini (Boca Raton), Seles (Lipton) and Leila Meshki (Hilton Head). "I just want to do well and get better. I don't think I've done bad this year, although I was a little disappointed I lost to Meshki."

"I don't look at if she wins or not," Stefano Capriati said. "I don't play the ranking game, I play the future. I would be happy if she stays in the Top 10 this year. It would be great if she wins something -- you want to win every tournament you play -- but it's not the end of the world. She's still learning."

He compares Jennifer to a language student, saying, "When you learn a new language, every day you are happy when you learn a new word. Then you start to connect the words and start speaking. But then there comes a time, for three or four months, when you can't speak the language. You get confused. There's a moment of transition before, all of a sudden, you know that you can speak the language. That's what's happening to Jennifer in tennis. She's learned a lot, but she doesn't yet know how to speak. This is her moment of transition."

Capriati, the seventh seed, lost to second-seeded Sabatini in the Italian Open Friday, 6-0, 6-2. Wednesday night, she fell behind Argentina's unseeded Cristina Tessi, 4-0, in the first set and 4-1 in the second before rallying to a 7-5, 7-6 (7-3) victory.

Capriati will play the German Open, the French Open and Wimbledon before she returns home.

"These are all the big tournaments I've been focusing on," she said. "The people are going to notice how I do now."

Capriati reached the quarterfinals of the Italian Open last year, losing to Sabatini then, too.

"It feels like yesterday that I was here," Capriati said. "I can't believe a year has gone by."

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