U.S. women make transition to future Capriati, Fernandez tough at Wimbledon


WIMBLEDON, England -- Jennifer Capriati says that one day she will win Wimbledon.

After her performance at this year's championships, the only question may be whether she wins the women's title before or after her senior prom.

Capriati, a 15-year-old who was groomed by her father, Stefano, to be the next Chris Evert, made a giant career advance during the recent fortnight. She dethroned nine-time champion Martina Navratilova in the quarterfinals and played with uncommon poise in a two-set semifinal loss to Gabriela Sabatini.

"I'm just trying to learn as much as I can," Capriati said.

On Capriati's shoulders rests a good deal of the future of American women's tennis. After the dominance of Navratilova and Evert, the women's game is in transition.

Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf of Germany, Sabatini of Argentina, and Monica Seles of Yugoslavia, the reigning Australian and French Open champion, constitute the Big Three of women's tennis. They are all-surface, all-purpose players. Despite the absence of Seles, who sat out Wimbledon with a mysterious injury, the tournament demonstrated the vitality of the women's game. In their dramatic three-set final, Graf and Sabatini strayed far from the baseline, bringing a blend of speed, power and volleying artistry to their sport.

Navratilova, 34, lurks one step behind the Big Three, even though she is ranked fifth on the women's computer after Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. But after her quarterfinal loss, Navratilova questioned her desire to struggle for championships, and appears on course to retire within the next few years, perhaps bidding farewell after representing the United States at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.

The players with the best chances of reaching the upper tier are Capriati and Mary Joe Fernandez, Wimbledon's two losing semifinalists. Capriati has received reams of publicity since her professional debut at age 14, and has overshadowed Fernandez. But Fernandez has proved herself a worthy top-three contender. She also turned pro as a 14-year-old in 1986 but attended high school full time, graduating with an "A" average from The Carrollton School in Miami in 1989.

"People think I'm so old because I've been around so long," said Fernandez, who will turn 20 next month. "But I'm just starting to play full time, and I'm making adjustments in my game."

A base-liner earlier in her career, Fernandez is being transformed into a serve-and-volley player. It is a difficult switch that already has yielded fine results. She has appeared in the semifinals of the four Grand Slam events.

"I can't make a drastic change all of a sudden and start chipping and charging on everything," she said. "It's not my style. But I'm working on it. I think I'm getting better. I just have to get used to the territory."

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