Tennis: An Olympian eyes another summit: With the US Open beginning tomorrow, Steve Flink reports on Jennifer Capriati's chances of capitalising on her Barcelona gold

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FROM the instant she burst to prominence in March 1990, reaching the final of her first professional tournament at the age of 13, in Boca Raton, Florida, Jennifer Capriati realised her life had been irrevocably altered.

Ever since then, the cognoscenti of tennis have insisted that she attain the highest standards, rise swiftly through the upper echelons of her sport, and live up unfailingly to her reputation. For the young Floridian with the blazing groundstrokes and the immense heart, achieving that greatness under the harsh glare of the public eye has been stressful and demanding.

However, as she begins her bid tomorrow to secure her first Grand Slam title at the US Open in Flushing Meadow, New York, Capriati appears to be on the edge of a breakthrough after a lean time on the court when she put on 25lb in weight, which happily she has now shed.

Until she revealed a markedly more positive side of herself at the Olympics in Barcelona earlier this month, the 16-year-old had frequently been distraught. In 1992, playing too often in a dazed and distracted state, she tended to advertise her misery and vulnerability in match after match around the circuit. Before Barcelona, Capriati had not been beyond the semi-finals in eight tournaments this year.

Then suddenly and spectacularly, she came out of her slump, defeating the gifted German Anke Huber, the Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and the Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf to garner the gold medal and the first clay-court championship of her professional career. With that timely triumph, she demonstrated unequivocally that her bounce and brio were back.

Whether or not the Olympics should be placed in the lofty territory of the Grand Slam events is beside the point; for Capriati, the dual achievement of winning a high honour as a representative of her country and stopping Graf for the first time in five confrontations was a monumental moment.

As she pointed out jubilantly, 'Steffi was the one top player I had never beaten. This takes me on to another level.'

Graf concurred, saluting her rival on a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory, predicting that Capriati would indeed be a more formidable opponent on large occasions. Success in Barcelona gave Capriati a crucial boost as she prepared to make her third appearance in the championship of her country. After advancing to the semi-finals of the French Open in 1990, she replicated that feat last year at Wimbledon and the US Open, eliminating the defending champions Martina Navratilova and Gabriela Sabatini on her way.

This year, she departed in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon, lacking the verve and free-wheeling strokeplay she had shown the previous season, losing twice to Sabatini and once to Monica Seles.

There were understandable reasons for her declining performance. Graf's former coach, Pavel Slozil, coached Capriati briefly at the beginning of her 1992 campaign, but the pensive Czechoslovakian was quietly dismissed in the spring. Unlike Capriati's previous coach, Tom Gullikson, Slozil could not inspire his prized pupil, probably taking too passive an approach.

Furthermore, Capriati found it debilitating to balance her schoolwork during tournaments with her time on the court. It has been said that she battled with her strong-willed father Stefano about her attitude towards her tennis; but clearly they both came away from the experience with their relationship intact.

Now she strives to come through at the US Open, bolstered by Barcelona and her leaner physical frame. Seeded sixth at Flushing Meadow, she could meet the world No 1 Seles in the quarter-finals and, should she survive that skirmish, Capriati would probably confront Sabatini in the semi-finals and either Graf or Navratilova in the final. In the semi-finals a year ago, she twice served for the match against Seles, the eventual champion, before succombing in a third-set tiebreaker.

But Capriati has twice toppled Seles, including a quarter-final victory earlier this year in Key Biscayne, Florida. Meanwhile Seles has been beaten in three consecutive finals, starting with her 6-2, 6-1 loss to Graf at Wimbledon, continuing with defeats against Navratilova in Los Angeles and Sanchez Vicario in Toronto.

The recent evidence indicates that Capriati can conquer the defending champion this time around, and that contest would be her hardest hurdle. If she pushes herself to the hilt and is unwavering in her determination, then Capriati could well succeed Tracy Austin as the youngest champion. Austin was 16 years nine months old when she beat Chris Evert for the crown in 1979; Capriati would be three months younger.

Austin attended the draw three days ago at Flushing Meadow, and empathised with Capriati's plight. 'The draw does make a difference,' said the 29-year-old Californian, 'and Jennifer will have to play three tough matches at the end. That can take a lot out of you.'

But Capriati in her current frame of mind seems ready to release her best and boldest tennis. The view here is that she has the tenacity and the temerity to prevail.

(Photograph omitted)