September 02, 1991 12:00 PM

REMEMBER JENNIFER CAPRIATI-THE kid, fresh as a cheerleader, who broke into professional tennis when she was three weeks shy of her 14th birthday? The girl who, in an era of grimly purposeful sluggers like Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini, seemed to think the game was fun? Fans hadn’t seen such unbridled exuberance since Tracy Austin capered about center court in pigtails some 15 years ago.

Today, a year and a half later, Jennifer Capriati is still the kid next door, still subject to off-court giggles. When she is home in Saddle-brook, Fla., she enjoys taking in a movie or a trip to the shopping mall with her teenage pals. But with a racket in her hand, Capriati is downright dangerous. She’s bigger, of course—an inch and a half taller and 15 solid pounds heavier than when she became the second-youngest woman player (after Graf) to turn pro. But she is also meaner. “On the tennis court I can’t be nice,” she says. “I say to myself, ‘Come on, you don’t want to lose. Fight back!’ I like fighting.”

And winning. This week the 1991-model Capriati, 15, goes on view at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., following back-to-back tournament championships. On Aug. 4 she upset Monica Seles, the tour’s top player for most of the year, in the final of the Mazda Classic in Carlsbad, Calif. A week later she was awarded $100,000, her largest purse yet, as the winner of the Player’s Challenge in Toronto. Capriati is now ranked seventh among women pros and could take home $600,000 in prize money this year. When the $4.5 million she will earn in product endorsements (principally for Oil of Olay, Prince rackets and the Italian sportswear maker Diadora) is added in, Capriati places fourth among women tennis players—and 26th overall on Forbes’s list of the world’s highest-paid athletes.

For the competition, things can only get tougher. Already one of the hardest hitters in the game, with a serve routinely clocked at more than 90 mph, Jennifer recently added sprints and long lunges to her training routine under the guidance of her father, Stefano. “When you are 14 and the bones are still growing, there are certain things you cannot do,” says Stefano. “Now she can work more on fitness, not just to stay in shape but to improve her muscles and reactions.”

Jennifer was little more than a toddler when Stefano, then a real estate marketer in Spain, and Jennifer’s mother, Denise, a Pan Am flight attendant, noticed their daughter’s tennis potential. “She was always playing around with the balls and racket,” says Stefano. “So when she was 3½, I said, ‘If you like so much to play, you hit the ball this way.’ ” A year later the Capriatis moved to Lauderhill, Fla., and soon afterward Jennifer began taking lessons from Chris Evert’s dad, Jimmy. “She just struck me as having a lot of raw talent,” recalls Papa Evert. “She was a bubbly child.” (Chris’s brother John, a college player at the time and now Jennifer’s business manager, hit with her when she was 8 and declared her “awesome.”)

By the time she was 10, Capriati had outgrown the competition in Lauderhill. “She was literally beating every player here in town, man or woman,” says Jimmy Evert. So the Capriatis moved to Wesley Chapel, Fla., home of the Harry Hopman/ Saddlebrook International Tennis Center. There, Jennifer plunged headlong into tennis, with practice sessions virtually every day. Coaching director Tommy Thompson says Capriati’s natural skills are so formidable he was wary of overdirecting her game. “She plays on adrenaline and emotion,” Thompson says. “You don’t want to cloud that with strategy.”

Despite her tournament schedule—she has played 42 pro matches so far this year—Capriati was on the honor role as a ninth grader at the Palmer Academy, a private school in Saddlebrook that accepts her homework assignments by fax when she is on the road. “She is an outstanding student,” says school director Norman Palmer. “I wish all my students had her attitude.”

Mindful of the burnout and injuries suffered by other young phenoms like Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, Stefano has given up real estate to become Jennifer’s full-time coach, manager and mentor. “Everybody wants some piece of her,” Stefano says. “But I know when enough is enough. I’ll be, as you say, ‘the bad guy.’ ” Asked if his daughter has started dating, Stefano replies, “I hope not.” Though their time together is limited, Jennifer has maintained a loving relationship with her brother, Steven, 11, also a budding tennis player. “There’s no jealousy, ever,” insists Denise. “Steven is just a happy person himself. And he is really proud of his sister.”

Capriati still wears a little gold bracelet Chris Evert gave her four years ago as a token of their friendship. “I love Jennifer,” says Evert. “It was sort of in the stars that I should retire about the time she started her emergence.” After less than two years on the tour, however, Capriati is ready for a declaration of independence. “Chris has been my idol, but I’m my own self now,” she says. “I’m my own Jennifer.”


DON SIDER in Saddlebrook

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