They just keep coming, with two fists on their backhands, ribbons in their hair and Mr. Moo, the one-eared stuffed animal, sitting on their beds back home: Evert, Austin, Jaeger and now 14-year-old Kathy Rinaldi, who last month had all the newshounds baying as she traipsed around Europe, playing her way into tennis history. Her father, who has curtailed his dental practice in Florida to shepherd his daughter, recalls noticing four passengers on a flight to London perusing different newspapers, each of which carried a picture of Kathy.
Rinaldi first burst onto the sports pages when she knocked off eighth-seeded Dianne Fromholtz and Anne Smith (No. 11) to reach the quarterfinals of the French Open. Two weeks later, she created another sensation by fighting off a match point to become the youngest player ever to win a match at Wimbledon. In the second round the jitters caught up with her, and she lost in three sets to Claudia Pasquale of Switzerland.
Before her 15th birthday, when she was four months older than Rinaldi is now, Andrea Jaeger turned pro, and today, some 18 months later, she's close to being a millionaire. Kathy, meanwhile, paws at the ground when the subject of going pro comes up. "Sure," she says. "Isn't that everyone's goal?"
So far, Rinaldi has passed up thousands in prize money, but for the summer at least she'll remain an amateur, entering one or two open tournaments while concentrating on 18-and-under amateur events, where the competitive spirit sometimes takes a backseat to jealousy and envy. Two weeks ago, at the National Junior Hard Courts in Burlingame, Calif., Rinaldi, seeded third—the two players seeded ahead of her were 17—was suffering from too many jet plane rides and too much tennis and was upset in the round of 16. Jaw set, eyes straight ahead and back rigid, she marched past the tournament desk, where some girls were squealing over the match. "What's the matter with her" one meowed. "Oh, she's just mad 'cause she lost," purred another.
Losing doesn't sit well with Kathy. Two years ago she became the first player ever to sweep all four U.S. girls 12-and-under titles in a single year. Last year, playing in the 14s, she won two major championships and reached at least the semis of every other 14-and-under tournament she entered. She ended up ranked third nationally, behind two girls a year older than she. This year, in addition to her wins in Europe, she has given Martina Navratilova a fine match.
How good is Rinaldi? Frank Froehling, a former U.S. Davis Cupper who was ranked sixth in the world in 1963, has had a hand in developing her strokes. "She can be the best woman player of all time," says Froehling. "My feeling is that she's better at this age than anybody before her, including Tracy Austin."
Austin and Jaeger are the standards by which all others are measured in the world of tiny-tot pro tennis. Kathy compares well to both of them. She stands 5'5" and weighs 115 pounds—bigger than either Austin or Jaeger is now—and her ground strokes, especially off a reliable backhand, are power-packed. Amy Olmedo, 18-year-old daughter of 1959 Wimbledon champion Alex Olmedo, plays for Texas' Trinity University, which had the nation's second-ranked women's team in 1981. Rinaldi recently routed her 6-1, 6-0. Afterward, Amy said, "It's the same feeling I had playing Austin four years ago. In fact, I think she hits harder than Tracy did at the same age."
She also volleys better than Austin, Jaeger and Chris Evert did at 14. Instead of swinging at the ball as most girls her age do, Kathy punches it. Though she doesn't venture up to the net regularly, she's not afraid of it and she knows how to use the angles once she gets there.
Rinaldi's deficiencies are a lollipop serve and an occasional smothered forehand. She also lacks Austin's, speed and Jaeger's touch. "But she has a lot of natural ability," says Froehling. She's currently ranked 38th on the Women's Tennis Association computer.
It's a bit surprising to wake up and find an international tennis star eating jelly beans in your living room, which is more or less what has suddenly happened to Dennis and Lindi Rinaldi, Kathy's parents. The Rinaldis live in the tiny community of Sewalls Point, which is near Jensen Beach, which is near Stuart, which is about 50 miles up the coast from West Palm Beach.