OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Capriati reveals the face of the future: Guy Hodgson reflects on a tennis tournament where the top players could not call the shots

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TENNIS at the Olympics of 1992 might have been worthwhile for two reasons. The first, by far the more important, it could have begun the process of persuading the International Olympic Committee that the sport sits uncomfortably at the Games and should be removed for its own good; the second that Jennifer Capriati has moved from being the possible future to the probable future.

The reasoning behind the reintroduction of tennis in 1988 was suspect from the beginning and seemed to rest on the flimsy basis that it had been in the original modern Games of 1896, and on the friendship of Philippe Chatrier, then the sport's most influential voice, and Juan Antonio Samaranch, the voice the Olympics listens to most closely.

Barcelona may have have taken the stridency out of the argument in favour. The tennis was held in an unsuitably hot place and would have died the death of indifference by Saturday had Jordi Arrese not reached the men's singles final and thus cultivated the hope of a Catalan gold medal in the local people. Even then Vall d'Hebron had empty seats while tickets for the synchronised swimming finals could only be bought through a tout.

Jeremy Bates, Britain's best male player, did not come to Barcelona because the reaction from other athletes was generally hostile when he had been in Seoul. Why are you here, he was asked repeatedly, when you have other occasions such as Wimbledon and the three other Grand Slams?

Why, indeed, when the men's final is between Arrese and Marc Rosset, because the higher-ranked players learned too late that their lessers are their betters when the vision of winning a medal for their country is placed before them. Rosset, who defeated five seeds on his way to earning Switzerland's only gold of the Games, was a worthy champion but is unlikely to be remembered for it. A year from now a good quiz question will be: Who is the Olympic men's tennis champion?

Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras all failed to get anywhere near the presentation ceremony while Andre Agassi got nowhere near Spain, preferring to rest on his Wimbledon laurels than run the risk of falling to sleep between shots on a court which must be one of the slowest clay creations outside the Terracotta Army of China.

The women's tournament suffered even more from absenteeism but curiously the non-appearance of Monica Seles, Gabriela Sabatini and Martina Navratilova did not prevent it becoming interesting and even fascinating in the two matches that were of genuine high quality. Both involved surprise Capriati victories.

Much was made of the 16-year-old American's prospects when she turned professional two and half years ago but the promises looked empty even as recently as four months ago when to all outward appearance she seemed bored with the sport. At the Olympics, however, she turned up with a new coach, the former Wimbledon champion Manuel Santana, a new golden hair colour and an attitude that had been missing since she used to routinely wallop all her age group.

Beating Steffi Graf in the final, the one top-five player she had always lost to, was meritorious enough, but perhaps her greatest match in Barcelona was in the previous round. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario not only had the crowd overwhelmingly on her side, the court could have been (and probably was) built with her in mind. To win 6-1 in the final set against the Spaniard was exceptional.

A gold medal at 16 suggests Grand Slam titles will follow and the statistics bear this up. Capriati's win/loss record is 111-31 compared to Graf's 97-45 when she had played the same number of matches (142) and at that stage the German, who has since won 11 Grand Slam titles, had not taken her first Tour event. Capriati has four.

(Photograph omitted)