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WILL SHE BE A SMASH?
Franz Lidz
February 12, 1990
Next month 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati will begin her quest to become the latest in the line of U.S. women tennis champions
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February 12, 1990

Will She Be A Smash?

Next month 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati will begin her quest to become the latest in the line of U.S. women tennis champions

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Jennifer's father, Stefano, hovers a few feet away, listening in. He's her constant companion and primary coach, always prodding and coaxing, nagging and cajoling. During the past nine years the Capriatis—the other two members of the family are her mother, Denise, who's a Pan Am flight attendant, and her 10-year-old brother, Steven—have moved all over Florida seeking a better tennis environment for Jennifer. Stefano has even given up most of his real estate activities to devote himself to her career. For the past year the U.S. Tennis Association has picked up most of Jennifer's traveling expenses and provided coaching, because she was a member of the national junior team.

Stefano, 54, grew up in Milan, where he played goalie for an amateur soccer team. He didn't take up tennis until his twenties, when he moved to Spain to become a movie stuntman. His credits include Patton, The Last Run and 100 Rifles, a paella Western starring Jim Brown and Raquel Welch.

He sees himself as the noble head of a princely family, imposing order and dispensing justice. Though his jowls have thickened and his belly has dropped, he remains a handsome bull-patriarch with a pugnacious thrust to his jaw that recalls the sheer cussedness of Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy. He protects Jennifer the way the Menuhin family must have watched over young Yehudi, swaddling her privacy.

Denise, Bronx-born, is a good-looking, slightly reticent woman given to the same fits of ditsiness as her daughter. "Stay in your seats or you'll get whipped," she deadpans in a mock airline safety drill.

She met Stefano 18 years ago during a layover in Spain. She was lounging poolside at a Torremolinos hotel when his head popped out of the water. "Let's have lunch," said Stefano. Denise managed a swoon. By dinner, all that remained was to register their silver pattern at Tiffany's.

For several years they lived in both Spain and the U.S. Occasionally, Stefano, a self-made tennis player, worked as a club pro on Long Island. Denise was one of his first pupils. She played until the day before she went into labor with Jennifer. "Stefano knew she would be a tennis player before she was even born," says Denise. "Just by the way I carried her."

Contrary to rumor, Stefano didn't start coaching Jennifer in the delivery room. He gave her a couple of months to settle in. When she was still an infant, he propped a pillow under her butt and made her do sit-ups. "She was a strong baby," he says. "She liked to crawl behind the ball machine and play with the balls when I taught. I wanted to keep her in the shade, but she would always crawl after the balls."

Jennifer first got her hands on a racket at three. At four, she could hold her own with the ball machine. "Already she could rally a hundred times on the court," he says.

That's when the family moved to Lauderhill, Fla., and Stefano took her to see another dad whose daughter had done all right with tennis lessons—Jimmy Evert, the pro at Holiday Park in nearby Fort Lauderdale. "She's too young for me," said Evert, who normally doesn't start teaching kids until they have reached the mature age of five.

"First, see," said Stefano. "I think she can hit the ball."

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