Venus Is Venus, Jennifer Is Mars

Aug. 19: It was the beginning of a tense, messy second set between Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams in the finals of the Rogers AT&T Cup in Toronto, and those old pros Pam Shriver and Mary Joe Fernandez were calling the match on ESPN2. They sounded a bit precious and monotone, like the Saturday Night Live “Delicious Dish” duo.

“You see that little, uh, ‘tattoo’ thing on the right arm of Jennifer Capriati?” said Ms. Shriver as Ms. Capriati reached for her serve, her meaty tricep ringed in a barbed-wire pattern. “It looks like a real tattoo, but after this point we’ll tell you what we found out!”

Second serve, brief exchange of ground strokes, and then Ms. Williams banged her forehand wide. A respectful pause.

Ms. Fernandez: “We found the tattoo is called henna , which comes from India, and it’s just ink, and it comes off in a week!”

Subtext: Don’t worry, folks, Ms. Capriati’s “rebellious” phase–during which she pierced her nose, plummeted in the rankings, allegedly shoplifted, allegedly did drugs and had her cross, rueful mug shot published in tabloids around the world–is now officially, like, over.

Though Ms. Williams went on to win the match 6-1, 6-7, 6-3; though her elder sister Venus may be even more formidable; though there are certainly any number of players who could win the women’s side of the U.S. Open, which begins in Flushing Meadow on Aug. 27, the now-second-ranked Ms. Capriati–who happens to be a native of this city–is the one who should .

She should in part because, at age 25, she is finally a woman in a sport that has been dominated, in ratings if not actual rankings, by pouting teenagers. Like gymnastics and figure skating before it, female tennis, until very recently, was becoming a pastime for the leering Humbert Humbert: barely legal. Venus Williams is 21 and Serena is 19. The No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis, who has publicly conceded that Ms. Capriati probably deserves her technical top stature, is 20, as is the silky, sullen, title-deprived Anna Kournikova, who mercifully withdrew from the year’s final Slam just this week. That bodacious new Belgian, Kim Clijsters, is 18; her compatriot, Justine Henin–who halted Ms. Capriati at this year’s Wimbledon–is 19. Recently, The New York Times ‘ sports section ran a piece on a 16-year-old Kournikova look-alike named Ashley Harkleroad. Spare us.

Moreover, while most of these girls seem as likely to turn up posing semi-nude in a glossy as hoisting a trophy, and while many of them seem eager to become multimedia crossovers–designing dresses or playing guitar or God knows what else–Ms. Capriati is refreshingly anti-glamour; and, after picking up the Australian and French Opens this year, she is entirely focused on tennis.

A few weeks ago, Ms. Capriati was in the basement of Macy’s, smiling and signing for her new sponsor, Fila, who bravely signed her on after her mid-90′s P.R. problems.

This reporter had dropped by to stalk her, but my heart wasn’t really in it. Ever since a crazed Steffi Graf fan named Gunter Parches crimped Monica Seles’ career by stabbing her in the back at a Hamburg tournament in 1993, one feels especially squeamish about making any sudden, lunging journalista moves with one’s tape recorder at a tennis player.

Fortunately, there were so many security people that Ms. Capriati could barely be glimpsed, let alone stalked. She was brown as a nut, seated on a sort of dais, wearing a pale blue shirt, white track pants, wedge-platform sandals with buckles and a delighted-to-be-here toothy grin. Her long, golden-brown hair was parted in the middle, in the style of her 1970′s foremothers. The crowd was mostly European tourists, with a smattering of 13-year-old girls in ponytails and flip-flops who would have barely been born when Ms. Capriati first appeared on the scene, a 13-year-old herself, in 1989.

“She came back from not being with the game for a little while,” said one of these young fans vaguely, “so I think that’s really great.”

A middle-aged lady in coordinated pink shirt and Capri pants was meting out the photo ops, making sure things moved speedily along. Reluctant to purchase the $40 worth of Fila merchandise that would have granted me a place on line, I hung back.

“She looks nice,” I said to my boyfriend, whom I’d dragged along for support.

“She looks ordinary,” he said, with a longing glance toward the cookware department.

After the paying crowd thinned, a Macy’s employee leaned over one of the many cordons and said, “It’s O.K.–you can go now.”

” You go,” I said, poking my boyfriend. It didn’t seem professional for me to ask for an autograph. I had brought a copy of Venus Envy , L. Jon Wertheim’s recent book about the women’s tour, but he thought that would be weird, so he got out a dollar bill for her to sign.

Pink Lady complimented him on his Dr. Seuss T-shirt and marshaled him through in a matter of seconds. I saw Ms. Capriati bare her marvelous wall of teeth and mouth, “Here you go!”

Embarrassed, I pretended not to know him.

“Well? Well? ” I asked when we reunited near the exit.

“She was like a sweet, ordinary college girl,” he said. “Just as ordinary as can be–a sun-kissed, ordinary tennis player.”

Indeed, part of what makes one want Ms. Capriati to win is that, besides the extraordinary ordinariness of her current persona, there is nothing special about her game. It’s kind of a throwback–if not to Chris Evert, Tracy Austin or Andrea Jaeger, her spiritual predecessors as America’s ponytailed sweethearts, then maybe to the formerly supreme Steffi Graf, the last woman to win a Grand Slam.

Like Ms. Graf (who, it must be said, started the whole posing-for- Vogue trend), Ms. Capriati’s most potent weapon is probably her penetrating forehand. Like Ms. Graf, she has a tendency to rush through her points. Two-fisted by design, she even was trying out a Graf-like backhand slice against Ms. Williams in Toronto.

Though Ms. Capriati has returned to being coached by her father, Stefano, this year, Tampa pro Harold Solomon is the man most people credit with turning her game around.

“Fairly early into the process, I asked, ‘Well, Jen, what do you think–what would you be happy accomplishing?’” Mr. Solomon said in a telephone interview. “And she said, ‘God, Harold, if I could ever get close to being in the top 20 players in the world again, I’d be the happiest girl that ever lived !’ So I said, ‘Well, I think that’s pretty modest. I think that you’re more than capable of being in the top five, and if you really work hard, you could be a top player.’ At the time, she was ranked about 120, and I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to approach the game like you’re ranked 120! It’s nice to think about the days when you were in the top 10 and you were this teenage phenomenon, but those were days gone by! You’ve got to compete like a son of a gun !’”

Asked if her hurried style on the court encapsulated a larger let’s-move-on strategy, he said: “That’s just how she is. She’s quick with everything; she rushes through things. The more nervous she gets, the more tight a match gets, the more she tends to rush. It’s just ‘ bounce, bounce, serve’–it’s kind of like her rhythm, sometimes she gets too crazed, and that’s something she needs to be reminded about.”

By comparison, Ms. Hingis, who treats the court like a calculus problem that only she knows how to solve, or the long-legged Williamses, thunderous and graceful at once, are far more stimulating to watch. And other players are more visibly passionate. Ms. Capriati is not a grunter; indeed, she complained at the Ericsson Open recently when Ms. Seles–who beat her devastatingly in three sets at the U.S. Open a decade ago, before their troubles started–started up with that seminal “Uh- UHH.”

On the court, the 5-foot 9-inch Ms. Capriati appears compact, as tight and elastic as a sturdy rubber band. Watching her wallop away with Ms. Williams was kind of like watching a game of Pong.

“She hits the ball as cleanly as anybody I’ve seen hit the tennis ball,” said Mr. Solomon. “She hits the ball in the center of the racquet, clean. The ball penetrates the court flat. And she’s really a tremendous athlete. She’s as good an athlete as anyone out there–as good as the Williams sisters, as good as anybody. She’s strong and fast.”

It’s good, clean, efficient American tennis; not much of a game, but it’s our game.

Another reason to feel affection for Ms. Capriati: She is truly a tennis player for the Oprah age. This isn’t her first comeback; it’s her fourth or fifth. When she fell in love with a hunky Belgian player, Xavier Malisse, she was thrown off-course; it was only after the romance floundered and she threw herself into her work–we all know how that goes, girls–that she got her long-awaited breakthrough.

And she’s watched her weight go up and down in the manner of any other average Bridget Jones. She has known fat; not in the constitutionally heavyset manner of Lindsay Davenport, the other highly ranked player out there who’s actually a grown-up, but because she likes to eat. She is not spotted squeezing strange energy pastes into her mouth, as Ms. Hingis has, or mainlining bananas and bagels like Martina Navratilova used to do. After she won the Australian Open, Ms. Capriati almost immediately treated herself to a large plate of seafood pasta.

“I had her jumping rope and doing running things in front of other players so they could see what she was doing,” said Mr. Solomon. “I made sure that there were other players seeing her taking time to ride the bike, or going out and hitting after her matches, no matter how long they were. So they would know that this was somebody that was serious, and that when they got into a tough match with her, they would know that she had done the work, that she deserved to win.”

The day after her loss in Toronto, Ms. Capriati was absent from the grounds of the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, Conn., where she was granted a bye in the first round, but her larger-than-life likeness was scowling purposively down from the Fila sports shop on the grounds. Inside, two tennis-loving ladies from nearby Riverside, Janet Blasberg and Helen Lovett–mid-50′s, khaki shorts, Keds, tasteful gold jewelry, frosted lipstick–were inspecting the merchandise.

“That’s what Capriati was wearing when she played Huber in Canada, she had on this outfit,” said Ms. Blasberg, fingering a midriff-bearing, V-necked spandex ensemble.

“She did have a little bulge around the middle,” clucked Ms. Lovett.

“It’s not terribly attractive!” said Ms. Blasberg, meaning the shirt.

“I thought, ‘If she can wear that, I can wear that!’” said Ms. Lovett. “She needed a size larger, I think.”

“The little space in between bulged out–as it would on me!” said Ms. Blasberg. “Actually, it’s terribly unattractive …. “

The two women agreed that they would be delighted to see Ms. Capriati, whom they’d followed since her early adolescence, prevail at the Open.

“I think it’s wonderful the way she’s come back,” said Ms. Lovett. “She sort of tried to come back last year. She’d try, and then she’d seem to fall out again, and she kept on, and I like to see the persistence.”

“The Williams sisters we’re not terribly fond of,” said Ms. Blasberg. “Their social graces are … they just turn so many people off initially that it’s hard to start rooting for them.”

“Their playing is fantastic ; they’re just a little too pushy,” put in Ms. Lovett.

This was, plainly, ridiculous. The Williams sisters are the best things to happen to women’s tennis–maybe in this whole century. But they have plenty of years to play and, what’s more, they have always seemed able to walk away from the game (hence their depressed rankings). Ms. Capriati can’t seem to stop walking back toward it. And the clock is ticking over her, as it is over this humid, unpleasant summer. Let her win this Open.