NEW YORK, AUG. 28 -- The bicycle gang pressed at the barricades, clamoring in their day-glo caps, up way past their bedtimes and shrieking for Jennifer Capriati. The 14-year-old had her coming out at the U.S. Open tonight, our Junior Miss climbing the wall in an unladylike way and grabbing every moppet's pen thrust at her.
In just three months as a professional, Capriati has risen to No. 14, captivating the tennis world and teens everywhere. In her Open debut tonight, on Stadium Court at the National Tennis Center, she encountered a rarity, a player almost as callow as she in 15-year-old Anke Huber of West Germany, and proved once again that she is best of the youngest with a 7-5, 7-5 victory.
It was a match of sweetness and irony, Capriati called the American heiress to retired Chris Evert, and No. 55 Huber, labeled the European successor to top-ranked Steffi Graf. Both are wild overstatements: They are in actuality mere girls, which they proved with immature, error-prone play. The high point thus was Capriati's intermingling with the crazed adolescent crowd at courtside, throwing souvenirs to the swarm, and then scrawling her autograph for several flashbulb-lit minutes.
"I like that," Capriati said. "I love it."
The surest sign of Capriati's youth is her brief attention span. She meandered through the match, seizing a 4-0 lead in the first set and a 3-0 lead in the second only to relinquish those margins, twice allowing Huber to pull even at 5. Perhaps more interested in the kids in the stands hollering for her wristbands, she had to kill a set point in the first and never fully settled down. What the native New Yorker and resident of Wesley Chapel, Fla., never displayed, however, was the slightest bit of intimidation.
The truth was, the occasion was nothing new for Capriati. She made her debut in a Grand Slam event by making the semifinals of the French Open. She reached the fourth round of Wimbledon. She already has endorsement contracts worth an estimated $5 million.
"At first I was a little nervous but after that it was great," she said. "The stadium is so big."
Huber does not have Capriati's reputation or big-match experience, her equal only in the apalling force with which she hits the ball for her age. Both players alternated winners with mindless, overswinging errors, banging away at the baseline.
"At first she was making a lot of errors, and but then she started hitting some good shots," Capriati said. "And then I started making a lot of mistakes. I just lost concentration. She made a lot of errors. I didn't really win."
It went like this: Capriati raced to a 4-0 lead, breaking Huber in the second and fourth games as the West German sprayed and flailed balls to all the outer parts of the court. Then it was Capriati's turn to show immaturity: She let her mind wander so badly that Huber swept the next five games and served for the set at 5-4.
But Capriati promptly broke back and then held after sweating out four deuces and break point against her. With a 6-5 lead, she settled grimly down and created triple set point. She swung a huge forehand to the corner and smashed an overhead, Huber pulled an easy smash wide, and Capriati then hit her shot of the match, a reflex backhand return down the line for an untouchable winner.
"I wasn't pleased that I let her come back," Capriati said. "I thought, 'Come on, you can't lose this.' I just tried to keep the ball in play more."
Capriati broke Huber in the second game of the final set as she staked herself to a 3-0 lead. Huber was unable to break until Capriati was serving for the match at 5-3.
In what was perhaps the best their best game, Huber tried Capriati's patience with moonballs, then suddenly unleashed her belted strokes. Capriati won a marvelous exchange of four drop shots with a twisting little backhand at an angle for 30-30. But Huber slammed a high backhand winner to the opposite corner for break point. Capriati then shoved a routine backhand into the net to give up her serve for the first time in the set. Huber held serve after a nervous deuce and they were tied at 5.
But Capriati held and then broke a last time, gaining double match point with a high slammed backhand return down the line, closing it out with a similarly vicious forehand shot.
So the heroine of the electric hue set survived. Capriati did not wish to be compared to that other American teen idol, Andre Agassi, he of the hot pinks and chartereuses. "I'm not into that," she said. But she didn't mind the same kind of adoration, or the swelling sense of giggling, shrieking fun that seemed to pour from the stadium.
"I'm just having fun," she said. "Especially since this is my first year. That's when you're supposed to have fun."