Jennifer Capriati seems like the kind of eighth-grader who chews seven sticks of gum at a time. Gangling and guileless, she speaks in a series of abashed stops and starts, mumbling and fumbling and stumbling in a voice that's pure soda pop: a flow of sugar and caramel laced with a fine icy fizz. "Me and my mother—my mother and me—are going out this afternoon to a new mall," she says with a tentative smile that conveys a slightly goofy but disarming buoyancy. "There's another mall closer to us, but this one is, uh, a new mall, a bigger one. It's got more stores, more...stuff."
"She's just a happy-go-lucky kid, but put a tennis racket in her hand and she turns killer," says Rick Macci, her former coach. In fact, Jennifer has been dispatching much older opponents with cold professionalism for some time. Two years ago, at the disgracefully precocious age of 12, she became the youngest ever to win either the girls' national 18-and-under clay or hardcourt title; she won both. Last fall she moved up to second on the International Tennis Federation 18-and-under women's ranking, winning the junior titles at the French and U.S. Opens.
No less an authority than Tracy Austin has called her the best American prospect since Tracy Austin. No less an authority than Ion Tiriac thinks she may be the future of women's tennis. Next month the future will begin to unfold. That's when a not-quite-14 Jennifer—her birthday is March 29—will make her professional debut, at the Virginia Slims of Florida in Boca Raton. Already the tennis world is abuzz with anticipation. "I'm telling you," says Macci. "She's scary."
But on this unseasonably cold afternoon under a mottled sky in Saddle-brook, Fla., the resort community near Tampa in which she lives, Jennifer doesn't look chilling; she looks chilly. Her arms are willowy, and her back apparently boneless, like a gymnast's. She may be the athletic equal of any woman in the sport. "I like the competitiveness and rewards of tennis," she says.
"Well, I mean, if you're good, you win Wimbledon and you get...you get, like, a trophy. They also...well, you also get your name put on the bowl."
You can also get rich, as Jennifer has discovered even before hitting her first pro serve. Diadora, an Italian sportswear manufacturer, has already signed her to a five-year endorsement deal that with performance bonuses could give Jennifer an estimated $5 million, which would rank her third in clothing and shoe endorsements among female players, behind Steffi Graf and the recently retired Chris Evert.
Jennifer's Shih Tzu, Bianca, jumps into her lap. Jennifer interrupts her thought with a delighted "ahhhh," instantly curling her hands into paws and screwing her face into a puppy's pout.
Why did you name her Bianca?
"I named her after, uh...I named her 'cause, like...I don't know," she says. "I just named her. And then, like, I was watching one of my favorite soaps, like All My Children, and there's like a little girl with the same, uh, name. But I didn't, like, name Bianca after her. It was...hmmm...uh.... I'm sorry. What was the question again?"