Another Failure To Deliver

The makeshift court created for Monica Seles and Alexandra Stevenson to play a few promotional points yesterday inside Grand Central Terminal looked like the tennis version of a steel cage: netting all around and even overhead, about 11 feet high, to protect the venerable chandeliers of Vanderbilt Hall.

No lobs in this cramped, ornate setting, more conducive to a Hingis-Williams taunt-fest than to Seles and Stevenson playfully trading from the service line while kicking off an educational campaign for the American Stroke Association, sponsored by Bayer.

After the week she just experienced, the ever-introspective Seles had to admit, “I need some Bayer aspirin myself.”

There was no cage in Charlotte, N.C., but Jennifer Capriati and Billie Jean King wrestled over Fed Cup team rules to a decision that was destructive to Capriati’s rebuilt reputation and King’s competitive cause. King tossed Capriati from the team Friday night after naming her to play Saturday’s singles, forfeiting one match of a competition the United States wound up losing to Austria, 3-2.

Caught in the middle of this untidy struggle between the mother of the modern women’s game and the daughter of an overbearing tennis father was Seles, who left no doubt whom she was siding with and why.

“It went on all week,” she said of Capriati’s challenging King’s policies, including the ban on practice independent of the team. “We were all told the rules and had a chance to leave. Once you stay, whatever the captain says, you have to respect that.”

Seles added: “God, it’s Billie Jean King. She’s responsible for everything we have. If you don’t have respect for her, I don’t know who you’ll have respect for.”

Into the second year of her inspirational re-emergence as a groundstroking, Grand Slam-winning force, Capriati has come a long way after her derailment from the teenage star track. Running contrary to the notion of full-blown maturity, however, is the fact that her father, Stefano, has come with her every step of the way.

“Billie Jean means well; Jennifer means well; Stefano means well,” said the agent Anthony Godsick, husband of the longtime WTA Tour player Mary Joe Fernandez. As usual, everyone meant well, and women’s tennis wound up with another embarrassment to explain.

“This hurt women’s tennis,” Seles said. “People wonder, `What is going on?’ “

The women get most of the attention and create the sport’s juiciest headlines but too often do not deliver. Always an event, Williams versus Williams is never an epic. Martina Hingis can’t win the big tournament anymore. Anna Kournikova can’t win any. Heralded showdowns turn into blowouts, if they are played at all. Last October, post-9/11, the United States Fed Cup team pulled out of the finals in Madrid. In Charlotte, the Fed Cup organizers sold out the Olde Providence Racquet Club, the fans expecting Capriati but witnessing a walkover for Austria’s Evelyn Fauth.

Capriati isn’t Darryl Strawberry, on his way to jail now. She didn’t break any laws. From all indications, she did push King to the breaking point. King had to do something, but she overreacted, or reacted too soon. Once committed to Capriati, King owed it to the fans and her team to hold her serve-and-volley aggression, to wait another day. She should have yanked Capriati after Saturday and told her to not come back until she grows up.

“I want this team to be together, like in football, basketball, any other sport,” King said. Except Fed Cup is not King’s beloved World Team Tennis. It is an occasional gathering of inflated egos that are emotionally tethered to familiarity, which usually means daddy or mommy, as demonstrated yesterday by Stevenson, accompanied to Grand Central by her mother, Samantha.

Capriati and family obviously won’t be playing anymore for Captain King, who hopes to have Venus or Serena Williams for the July qualifier the United States is now relegated to. Venus has indicated she may play. Serena told King to check back. Lesser players like Lisa Raymond are always happy to play, and then there is Seles, still blaming herself yesterday for being upset Saturday by Barbara Schwartz.

Seles is not the player she was before an act of sports terrorism was committed against her, yet she still manages to come off as more of a champion than ever. She got into New York from Charlotte at 2:30 yesterday morning and was at Grand Central on two hours’ sleep. “A commitment is a commitment,” she said. “You’ve got to see it all the way through.”

Or at least through the match for which no replacement is allowed.