OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Tennis: Capriati's date with destiny

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JENNIFER Capriati, who four months ago would have won a medal only for being fed up with tennis, claimed the Olympic title here yesterday. girl from Florida via New York, whose career has been saddled with a gilt complex almost from birth, had fulfilled her destiny.

In defeating the holder, Steffi Graf, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 she achieved her first major success and turned anticipation into fact. Two years after being heralded as the next great champion, at 16 years five months nine days she added a new item to her litany of firsts: the youngest Olympic tennis champion. Equally pertinently given her age, it was also her first victory over Graf.

'It was so emotional,' she said of the award ceremony. 'I had chills all the time. I've watched other athletes seeing their flag go up and thought 'Jeez, I bet it's so good to be there.' Here I got the chance. It's wonderful.'

Wonderful was not a word she would have used as recently as April. Helen Wills was the previous American woman to win an Olympic gold and she had done it in 1924 before becoming Helen Wills Moody. In Capriati's case she had to discard a mood which, at the French Open, pointed her towards normal teenage pursuits rather than the grind of professional tennis. She was homesick and wanted to do what other adolescents do.

In Barcelona, however, she unveiled a new hair colour - gold - and a new attitude. The match swung her way after Graf appeared poised to extend her unbeaten run in Olympic matches to 11, a record for either men or women. In the past if Graf edged ahead Capriati buckled; this time she scrapped tigerishly.

The American had nine break points at 2-2 and when she blew them and lost the first set 6-3 she could have wilted in the debilitating heat of Vall d'Hebron's cockpit of a Centre Court. Instead she began to hit the ball harder and closer to the lines. 'I was encouraged even though I messed up those break points,' she said. 'I'd given her a hard time. She knew she'd have to serve well to beat me. It put pressure on her.'

So instead of the girl cracking it was the woman. Graf, 23, lost her serve in the eighth game of the second set and again at the same stage in the third, Capriati thumping a forehand drive down the line to make the second break. The American had only to hold her serve to become champion and she did so to 15. It was only her 12th tournament on clay and by far her most important victory.

The afternoon was not entirely without German gold as Boris Becker and Michael Stich won the men's doubles, beating South Africa's Wayene Ferreira and Piet Norval 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3. 'It can not compare to winning Wimbledon,' Becker said. 'You win that for yourself. Today I was playing for my country.'

Becker, not at his best in the singles where he was beaten by Fabrice Santoro in the second round, has looked more comfortable playing in the doubles format during the Games. He called for the Olympics to be played on a team basis this week, finding it easier to embrace the concept of patriotism with a partner than on his own.

Yesterday he was embracing Stich after a result that was a surprise in its manner rather than its accomplishment. Becker and Stich possess two of the best serves in the world, but yesterday those weapons were muzzled by inaccuracy which meant they had only one ace and six double-faults. Instead they volleyed and ground stroked to a win, the magnitude of which was apparent by the length of the clinch they indulged in at the end.

It did not suggest a permament relationship, however. Stich, who won Wimbledon in concert with John McEnroe, was asked if he had decided who he would be playing with in the US Open. 'John,' he answered. Patriotism may be the last resort of scoundrels, but in tennis it is the first to be jettisoned when Grand Slam titles are at stake.