In this racket, it isn't easy for kids to be kids


NEW YORK -- Legend has it that Monica Seles learned English watching the Jetsons, which may explain the way she talks. You don't know anything about Seles unless you've heard her talk. Let's just say she's the Evelyn Wood of talking. Her life is one run-on sentence on fast forward -- bubbly and bright and enthusiastic and fun and in several, breathless languages.

She likes Madonna, Dodgers games, Letterman, stuffed animals and new, bold outfits. She wants to be a model someday. Sure she does. She's just 17. You know what I mean.

Or maybe you don't.

Seles plays Martina Navratilova today for the women's championship of the U.S. Open. Should she win, Seles will have taken three of the four Grand Slam championships this year. She missed Wimbledon. When I say she missed Wimbledon, I mean she missed Wimbledon. Skipped out. Didn't show. Turned up at one of the Donald's houses instead. How's that for a scary call? Dad, I'm at Donald Trump's house if you need me.

She stiffed the lords and ladies of Wimbledon without telling a soul, leading to one of the great manhunts (womenhunts? personhunts? kidhunts?) since Amelia Earhart disappeared. We heard all kinds of rumors, including speculation from one writer that she and Billy Joe McCallister were seen throwing something off the Tallahachee bridge.

It got ugly. When Seles finally emerged from hiding to say that shin splints had sidelined her, let's just say her statements were met with skepticism.

She's just 17, and the whole world is watching. Now you know what I mean.

Which is that Seles, this wonderful little girl, follows Donna Rice .. and Jessica Hahn in signing a contract to wear No Excuse jeans.

What are we doing to these little kids?

In the women's semifinals of the U.S. Open, on a day where Jimmy Connors was not sighted even once, Seles met Jennifer Capriati. She's 15. Seles on Capriati: "You know it is unbelievable she is so young and playing so well." Honest to gosh.

They played three sets of wonderful, baseline-to-baseline bashing, with the matter finally settled in a tie-breaker. One little girl has a 100-mph serve, and they both hit ground strokes like Cal Ripken hits line drives. It was not unlike a war, with accompanying sound effects. Capriati grunts when she hits the ball. Seles shrieks. I don't know how to describe it unless you've heard Seles meet a tennis ball at full contact. It's a two-syllable groan that sounds like Wal-ly or maybe A-li or who knows what it might be in Serbo-Croatian, which is her native tongue.

You've got great action and sound effects, and you think you're at a Steven Spielberg movie until you get to the ending. That's when little Jennifer is fighting back tears and losing. She cries her little head off. She's 15. She likes to shop. She likes to tape music and dance by herself in front of her mirror.

She cries, and they lead you into the interview room where her eyes are brimming and her nose is sniffling and she's practically chewing on a towel while she explains to the assembled media how the third set got away from her. No excuses?

It was a little much. You've got this little girl who has to grow up in front of the world, and we say that's the price all prodigies pay. I don't know. I do know it's discomfiting.

Navratilova, who at 34 is older than Capriati and Seles combined, finished high school before she went on the tour and has often wondered about the wisdom of 15- and 16-year-old professionals. She was asked yesterday with whom she had more in common -- Jennifer or Jennifer's mother, Denise.

"Well, I don't know either one that well, but I am sure that Denise and I would probably have a better conversation at the dinner table than Jennifer and I," Navratilova said.

She paused and then said the obvious: "Geez, how do you talk to a 15-year-old?"

It's my experience that you either have to pull the phone away from her ear or at least the stereo earphones before you can say anything. Then you hear a lot of you-knows in replay. Capriati came onto the tour as a champion you-knower, although she has worked on her game. Seles can say you-know in at least three different languages and, believe me, with Indy 500 speed.

And yesterday she got to speed-talk her way through the Wimbledon business and admitted that it would be on her mind today. She also said that if she had tried to play Wimbledon, she wouldn't have been fit to play here. I'm ready to believe her. I'm ready to give her every break. She's 17. She deserves that much.

And when she says: "I am not going to let it bother me because I do feel that, you know, if I could have done it this year, I could do it next year," I don't want to be the one to remind her that only three women have ever won all four Grand Slam events in one year. She's No. 1 in the world. She's in the Open final. She doesn't need a single excuse.

Seles-Capriati box score

The box score of Monica Seles' 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3) victory over Jennifer Capriati in the semifinals of the U.S. Open:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . S . . . . . . C

1st serve percentage. . . . . . .67 . . . . . .67

Aces. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0 . . . . . . 2

Double faults . . . . . . . . . . 3 . . . . . . 1

Pct. 1st serve points won . . . .58 . . . . . .57

Pct. 2nd serve points won . . . .47 . . . . . .44

Winners . . . . . . . . . . . . .33 . . . . . .29

Unforced errors . . . . . . . . .44 . . . . . .40

Pct. break points conversions . .60 . . . . . .75

Pct. advances to net. . . . . . .75 . . . . . .75

Time of match . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1:56

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