PARIS, JUNE 7 -- Two sweet-faced girls walked off the court with arms around each other's shoulders, 16-year-old Monica Seles and 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati smiling in mutual apology. Their semifinal meeting today at the French Open was disappointingly one-sided, Seles a straight-set victor. But it was the beginning of something, Capriati fighting off five match points. And anyway, what a lovely picture they made.
As usual when an event is too eagerly anticipated, the first match between two of the most hard-paced and brilliant young players in the world did not meet expectations. Capriati, the eighth-grader from Florida with a contagious grin, committed 36 errors while Seles of Yugoslavia raked the lines with sharp left-handed ground strokes to make the first Grand Slam final of her brief career, 6-2, 6-2. She next meets top-ranked Steffi Graf of West Germany, a 6-1, 6-2 winner over Jana Novotna of Czechoslovakia.
"I think everybody thought it would be closer," Capriati said.
Yet it ended with a promise. The last game held the suggestion that Capriati and Seles will meet in similar circumstances again, and when they do it should be a prizefight. As Seles served to close out the match, they swung each other to the far reaches of the court, belting ground strokes, shrieking in frustration and finally heaving with exhaustion.
Capriati five times held off Seles, who doubled over after one frantic point. But Capriati struck two last, tired forehands, one into the net and one deep.
"There was so much attention, everybody was expecting so much," Seles said. "It was a difficult match."
For the first time since she began her pro career in March by reaching the final of the Virginia Slims of Florida, Capriati played like what she is: a 14-year-old. This normally gregarious child with a brunette ponytail who already is ranked No. 13 was unsmiling and subdued afterward.
"I didn't do anything," she said, reflecting on a match in which she won only 14 points in her eight service games and hit just 13 winners. "All I did was make errors."
Capriati's streaking progress has been surpassed only by Seles'. The Yugoslav last season extended Graf to three sets in their semifinal here before succumbing, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. She is a wiry-haired blonde who hits with both fists and has soared to No. 3, winning 31 straight matches and her last five tournaments, including stunning consecutive victories over Graf and No. 2 Martina Navratilova in finals.
"I think I'm a little astonished," Seles said.
Seles presence among the top three and Capriati's seemingly imminent arrival in the top 10 are fascinating intrusions into the Graf-dominated women's game. The 20-year-old West German is attempting a second sweep of the major titles, having won the Grand Slam in 1988. Yet her hold has been loosened somewhat. Not only did Seles beat Graf in the Lufthansa Cup three weeks ago, she did so in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3.
Angering Graf on the eve of the French Open perhaps was not to Seles' advantage. Graf has lost just eight matches since January 1987, winning 263. One of those losses was here last year to 17-year-old Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and she will not allow another insurgent teenager to deprive her of a second Grand Slam easily. Seles is prone to nerves, and was apprehensive about her first major final.
"Oh, gee, I won't think about it," she said. "I'll get scared and my strokes will go bad."
But Graf's match against 11th-seeded Novotna contained a hint of something many have noticed lately: She seems to lack the ruthlessness she maintained over the last three years as No. 1. Graf led by 3-0 in the second set with consecutive breaks of Novotna's serve when there was a startling turn of events.
"I think I was just lacking, I don't want to say seriousness, but a bit of concentration," Graf said.
Graf double-faulted twice in the fourth game to give Novotna the game. Graf played even more loosely in the sixth game, letting a 40-0 lead go before she held serve. The game included a rarity for her -- a wild, swinging forehand with which she caught the ball with the edge of the racket and sent it into the stands.
There are few players capable of dealing with Graf's force. One of them is 5-foot-9 Seles, another is 5-8 Capriati. The prospect of their punishing strokes colliding, with a match against Graf as the reward, was irresistible. Moreover, Seles and Capriati are giggly, charming girls and their entrance and exit from Court Central bearing armfuls of flowers made a portrait.
There also was a sense of simmering rivalry, and the pressure of their first meeting in a semifinal was perhaps too much to be borne. Capriati double-faulted three times on game points, including the first of the match. Seles could not take control of the second set, which began with five consecutive breaks of serve before she finally held for a 4-2 lead.
"I can't say both of us played well," Seles said.
Capriati's strokes were duller than usual and down the middle of the court. She made only 64 percent of her first serves, but Seles was slightly more reliable and pried at the angles of the court. Capriati was stretched wide, pulled up short and pushed backward, on the run and in a constant state of emergency. She faced 11 break points while creating just three.
"I wasn't moving the ball," Capriati said. "She had me pinned to the baseline; she was moving me right and left."
Had Capriati been able to assert herself at all in the second set, she might have made a contest out of it. But she double-faulted away the opening game, broke back to even it, then double-faulted the third game away. When Seles finally held at love and broke for a 5-2 lead, it appeared over.
But their final game was a 16-point epic, almost a match in itself. They went to deuce five times and Capriati gained a break point before it ended.
"It's difficult for me on match points," Seles said. "I choked on them a lot."
With double match point at 40-15, it was Seles' turn to double-fault. Then she smothered a low backhand in the net. She stabbed a forehand volley and swung for a two-fisted putaway for a third match point. But Capriati outlasted her in a lengthy baseline rally.
"She surprised me, she was getting a lot of balls back," Seles said. "She was fighting like it was 5-5 in the third set."
Capriati pushed a forehand return deep to give Seles the fourth match point. That provoked their finest rally, a blistering affair from the baseline that Capriati ended with a poised topspin backhand that jumped off the corner lines. But Seles replied with another stinging forehand winner for match point number five.
They resumed slugging each other from side to side, Capriati time and again barely getting shots back. Seles encroached on the net as Capriati batted a high weak forehand -- but the Yugoslav was so spent that she blocked it into the net, and bent double in frustration.
"I thought if I kept fighting I might win that game, and then maybe I'd win the next, and the next, and the next, and maybe I could come back," Capriati said.
But Capriati was just as spent. On the last two points she reverted to her previous form, to the relief of Seles. The Yugoslav had seen the future as clearly as anyone in the stadium.