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While hundreds of reporters descended on the posh grounds of The Polo Club in Boca Raton, while thousands of spectators spilled through the gates, while other players at the Virginia Slims of Florida gazed at the mob scene with bemusement, the cause of all the excitement, 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati, was curled up inside Chris Evert's elegant stucco house several blocks from the stadium court, watching a rerun of The Bionic Woman. "It was a way for me to relax a little," she said.
As it turned out, Capriati couldn't have picked a more fitting show to tune in to as she savored some privacy with her father, Stefano, her mother, Denise, and her brother, Steven. Later that afternoon, faster than you could say Lindsay Wagner, Capriati dismantled 10-year veteran Mary Lou Daniels 7-6 (7-1), 6-1—for the record, the date was March 6, 1990—to earn a victory in her first match as a pro. By week's end Capriati, the kid with the grown-up ground strokes, had served stirring notice that a new American tennis heroine had arrived, ready to pick up where Evert left off when she hung up her racket last year. "This wasn't a debut," said Ted Tinling, the 80-year-old tennis eminence. "It was a premiere!"
In a setting not far from where Evert, Capriati's idol, had emerged as a star two decades before, Capriati made history by becoming the youngest player ever to reach the finals of a women's tennis tournament. Though she was subdued 6-4, 7-5 by Gabriela Sabatini, the world's No. 3-ranked player, on Sunday afternoon, it didn't matter. Afterward, all talk centered on Capriati, who had displayed pounding baseline shots, precocious volleys and boundless energy all week as she ripped through a roll call of experienced pros: Daniels (ranked 110th), Claudia Porwik (34th), Nathalie Tauziat (16th), Helena Sukova (10th) and, finally, Laura Gildemeister (21st) in a semifinal match that featured tense back-to-back tiebreakers, both won by Capriati.
But as astonishing as Capriati's skills were, the indelible impression she left was of her apparent obliviousness to pressure. Time after time throughout the week she slipped behind in matches only to hammer her way back. She kept balls in play with spectacular returns, kept opponents on their heels with rocket serves that were sometimes clocked at 94 miles per hour and kept the crowds that packed her matches in her back pocket with a bubbly grace. "I like to fight," Capriati announced during one of her many SRO postmatch press conferences. "When I hear the crowd getting into it, I really get into it too."
The crowd virtually adopted her after her first-round victory. Spectators laughed as Capriati cavorted on the court with her 46-year-old doubles partner and Hall of Fame mentor, Billie Jean King, chattering, slapping fives and urging King on until they lost in the second round to Brenda Schultz and Andrea Temesvari.
King, who since last year has been helping Capriati with her serve-and-volley game and counseling her on the pressures of competition, thoroughly enjoyed her stint with the new kid on the block. "It's really fun for me to see somebody her age and how well she handles things," King said.
King was far from the only Capriati admirer on the premises. As the week progressed, the reviews rolled in like raves for a smash Broadway play.
"She can definitely be the leading person in the 1990s," said 27-year-old Pam Shriver, the world's 14th-ranked female player.
"She was born to do this kind of work," said former player and current tennis analyst Mary Carillo. "She's happy—that's her secret weapon."
Though Evert was out of town at a ski event in Aspen—consciously keeping her distance to give Capriati the full stage—an All in the (Evert) Family theme enveloped the tournament. In addition to giving the Capriatis the run of her house during the day—they spent nights in a hotel where Jennifer shared a suite with Steven adjacent to their parents' room—Evert sent Capriati a telegram of encouragement before her debut and called every day from Colorado. (Let's get the Evert-Capriati on-court comparisons out of the way here and now. They possess similar two-fisted backhands, and Capriati's baseline game seems as potent as Evert's was. But Capriati attacks more and packs more punch with her serve.)