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At 15, fearless Capriati becomes contender


NEW YORK -- Win or lose, her summer vacation ends at Louis Armstrong Stadium. It should always be this way for a 15-year-old tennis player who is still fresh and fearless. She is trying to pack a championship trophy in her knapsack and bring it back to school for show and tell.

Some kids go to camp, but Jennifer Capriati goes on tour. She does Paris and London. She knocks off defending champions. She climbs up the rankings like a student skipping grades and heading straight to graduate school.

Today, Capriati will meet 17-year-old Monica Seles in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Soap operas get pre-empted as these teen-agers square off in a main event that overshadows an equally compelling match between former champions Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.

Monday, Capriati goes back to school, beginning her 10th-grade classes at the Palmer Academy in Saddlebrook, Fla. But for now, this is her Open, her punishing backhands and bright smiles lighting up the women's game.

Two years ago she won the junior title and last year she made it into the top 10. But she no longer is the giggling, rambunctious child of 1990 who plunged into the crowds to sign autographs and shake hands with adults, and left the Open gobbling up brownies after a straight set loss to Graf.

Now, she watches what she eats, shedding 8 pounds on a pasta diet and working out daily with a fitness trainer. She is more serious and focused. "Mellow," is her buzzword of the tournament.

"Drawing it all in last year, I was kind of in awe of everything,Capriati said.

At 15 years, 5 months, she is trying to become the youngest champion in Open history, attempting to beat the record established by Tracy Austin, who was 16 years, 8 months and 28 days when she won the 1979 women's title. There is little surprise in this tale. For more than half her life, she has been groomed to be the next Chris Evert. With Capriati, the question has never been if she will win the Open, just when.

"Absolutely, Jennifer can win this thing," said her coach, Tom Gullikson. "Last year was just too early. She is at least 50 percent better than last year. Last year, she was immature as a player, she was more one dimensional. This year, she has much more variety in her game.

Capriati is ranked No. 6 on the women's computer, surviving a sophomore jinx. She lost in the fourth round of the French Open and there were whispers that she might not improve much. For the first time, she also had to deal with the pressure of defending her ranking.

"It's really tough." she said.

" There is always a lot of attention."

After the French Open, Capriati took a break and came back to the United States with her family. Since joining the tour in March 1990, the Capriatis have attempted to keep life as normal as possible for their daughter the millionaire. They say they want her to be a teen-ager who happens to be a tennis star.

Said her father, Stefano Capriati. "She has 65 percent a normal life, school, shopping, friends, music. Thirty five percent is tennis.

Refreshed, she came roaring back at Wimbledon, shoving Martina Navratilova right off the grass and reaching the semifinals. And then she came back to the United States and dominated Seles in two hard court events, and won back-to-back titles in Los Angeles and Canada.

"It's like learning a language for Jennifer," Stefano Capriati said. "She knew the word tennis, but she had to put it together.

She is also learning to cope with life off the court. Not just little things like dealing with post-match interviews and making her way around the locker room, but big things, like shopping outside of a mall. Capriati recently walked down Broadway and bought a Terminator II tape from a vendor for $10. She rushed back to her hotel, popped the tape into a video machine, and discovered it was blank.

"Typical tourist," she said.

At this Open, Capriati has emerged as tennis' terminator. She hasn't lost a set yet, and unloaded on defending champion Gabriela Sabatini in the quarterfinals.

But can she win the Open? Ask her, and Capriati nods her head and says, "Uh, uh."

Others agree.

It is always a gradual process when one generation is trying to beat another. You always have a lot of respect for the other champions. But you have to get over that hump."

She is nearing her first Grand Slam title. If not here, than somewhere else. Summer is ending, but Capriati's career is just beginning.

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