Capriati defeats Sabatini Defending champion is ousted, 6-3, 7-6


NEW YORK -- Well, do you think this kid is going to choke in the U.S. Open?

She is 15 years old and she walks into Louis Armstrong Stadium like she owns the place. The bright lights don't bother her. Defending champion Gabriela Sabatini doesn't scare her. The whole idea of winning her first Grand Slam tournament before her senior prom doesn't even impress her.

Jennifer Capriati has come to New York to break into the big-time of women's tennis.

Last night, in the quarterfinals, in a stadium filled with businessmen in suits and women in furs and just plain tennis fans in sweat shirts, No. 7 seeded Capriati took apart No. 3 Sabatini, 6-3, 7-6 (7-1). The victory moved Capriati into Friday's semifinals against No. 2 Monica Seles, a 6-1, 6-2 winner over Gigi Fernandez.

Between them, Capriati and 17-year-old Seles don't even add up to one 39-year-old Jimmy Connors. But together, the teen-age tennis conglomerates are just about the whole women's show at this year's Open.

Ever since defeating Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon, Capriati has displayed the confidence needed to fulfill all the expectations heaped upon her since her debut in March, 1990. )) The Chris Evert wannabe may be ready to become the youngest U.S. Open champion.

"It's still going to be tough," Capriati said. "Every match gets tougher."

To win the Open, she'll have to beat Seles, the Australian and French Open champion, just to get a shot at No. 1 Steffi Graf, the likely survivor of the top half of the women's draw.

"I believe she can win this tournament," said Capriati's coach, Tom Gullikson. "Last year was just too early. This year, she didn't play well early. But she really showed a champion's courage by coming back and working hard. She pulled herself out of that sophomore slump all by herself. No one else did it for her."

Capriati's power and artistry were on display against Sabatini. .. She slammed winners from the baseline, went shot-for-shot with Sabatini during long rallies, and dropped in the occasional lob.

"As you go on, you get wiser," said Capriati, who will enter the 10th grade this fall at Palmer Academy in Saddlebrook, Fla. "You get more experience. Against top players, you have to think more."

Sabatini presents all sorts of awful problems for opponents. She is an elegant player, able to stand on the baseline and trade backhand jabs, or rush the net for volleys. But her second serve -- a slow, bending changeup -- leaves her vulnerable.

Capriati is quickly developing the best service return in the game and she danced along the baseline, squeaking her sneakers and picking off the second serves.

"I wasn't planning on being obnoxious or annoying," she said. "I wanted to intimidate her and show her I would attack her serve."

Sabatini fended off Capriati in their previous matches, beating her six straight times, including a straight-set masterpiece in the Wimbledon semifinals. But Capriati finally cracked Sabatini's dominance at the Canadian Open last month, winning the first set, and then watching in the second as Sabatini retired from the match with foot blisters.

"That gave me confidence," Capriati said.

The outcome in Canada also sent a warning to Sabatini. Pressured throughout last night's match, Sabatini was bullied off the court.

"It's disappointing," Sabatini said. "This is a good tournament for me. I expected to do better. It is disappointing to lose. I didn't play well on the court."

Sabatini said Capriati was nearly flawless. Despite twice failing to close out the match on service games in the second set, Capriati dominated the tie-breaker and finally closed the show -- with a backhand drop. She jumped at the net, pumped her fists, and then rushed to the stands to receive hugs from her family.

"She didn't have too many mistakes," Sabatini said. "I didn't play well when I had to. I didn't start well. I wasn't there mentally. I wasn't strong enough to win. And she was."

Who will win the Capriati-Seles semifinal? It's a tough call. They -- have split four matches, but Capriati has won the past two, both on hard court.

"Jennifer has played very well," Sabatini said. "I don't think she has the mentality to win it. But either Jennifer or Monica will win this tournament."

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