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Evert saw. "O.K.," he said. "I'll give her a lesson."
The lessons lasted for five years. Jennifer even got to hit with Chris. "The first time I practiced with her," says Jennifer, "I was so nervous I couldn't keep the ball in the court. She probably thought I was soooo bad."
She shows off the gold bracelet Evert gave her for Christmas in 1987. JENNIFER is engraved on the front, LOVE, CHRIS on the back. Jennifer never takes it off.
In many ways—the fiat, crushing ground-strokes, the two-handed backhand, the unflappable composure, the Wilson graphite racket—Capriati is the image of Evert. But she rushes the net more often in a single match than Evert did in most tournaments. ' "Capriatis a phenomenon," says Seena Hamilton, director of the Easter Bowl, a junior championship tournament, and the doyenne of tennis tots. "She's without a doubt the most promising player since Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger."
Largely because of the injury-plagued careers of Austin and Jaeger, the Women's International Professional Tennis Council in 1986 barred girls under 14 from playing the pro circuit. Stefano, however, wanted Jennifer to be allowed to enter a limited number of tournaments while retaining her amateur status. A year ago, a formal request was filed by the International Management Group, which was already representing Jennifer, but it was denied. Stefano considered filing a lawsuit but has since mellowed. "The rule is good," he says. "But there should be some exceptions to give a smooth transition to a certain player." (The WIPTC has since modified its rule, allowing girls to play in pro tournaments during the month of their 14th birthday.)
Yet Stefano bristles at the mere mention of Austin and Jaeger, whom some tennis theorists have said may have played too much too soon for their young bodies to endure. "What is the point of bringing them up?" he says. "They belong to the past. I believe in the future. There is nothing to be learned from their stories. They were completely different. Jennifer is just an American girl with a chance to be great."
"Jennifer's certainly exciting to watch," says Austin. "Players like her come along once a decade." Not long ago the last one to come along was hobbling around on a crutch in her parents' house in Rolling Hills, Calif. She was behind the wheel of a rented car in New Jersey last August when a van ran a red light. The van smashed into Austin's side of the vehicle, propelling the car across the road. Everything was spattered with blood: the dashboard, the door, Austin.
She was still unconscious when they pulled her out of the wreckage. Her right leg was broken. The operation to reconstruct the tibia took three hours. A piece of her hip had to be grafted into her knee. She had been making another comeback—this time playing doubles with the Team/Tennis league—but the accident made her a spectator.
Eleven years ago, at 16, Austin had become the youngest player to win the U.S. Open. She reached No. 1 in the world in 1980, and in '81 won the U.S. Open again. By the time she was 18, Austin had earned more than $1 million in prize money. She retired with $1,921,990 in tour earnings, 12th on the alltime list. By any standard, Austin's career was an enviable success, only short-lived. Recurring back and foot injuries finally forced her off the circuit in 1983, and she has played only sparingly since.
Yet Austin doesn't believe her ailments were caused by too much tennis at too young an age. "They started when I damaged a sciatic nerve for the second time in 1982," she says. "When you get injured, you've got to take time off. I came back too soon, and I got re-injured. It was a vicious cycle."