Rewatch, 1990 Hilton Head: Navratilova shows Capriati how to close

Rewatch, 1990 Hilton Head: Navratilova shows Capriati how to close

We take a look back at a classic inter-generational final, when a 33-year-old legend outclassed a 14-year-old prodigy for her 150th career singles trophy in South Carolina.

Wimbledon’s cancellation and Roland Garros’s potential postponement have been the big news developments in the tennis world during the coronavirus crisis. And for good reason: It’s hard for many of us to picture our spectating life without the Grand Slams. But those stories also obscure the loss of many smaller, unique, charming single-week events, ones that help knit together the varied, international fabric of the tours.

One of those uniquely charming events is the Volvo Car Open, which would have been underway in Charleston, S.C., as we speak. Founded in 1973 (as the Family Circle Cup), it was held at the Sea Pines Plantation until 2000, before moving to Daniel Island, near Charleston, in 2001. After a month in Indian Wells and Miami, it can be refreshing to take a breath, relish the slower pace and take in the southern hospitality.

As quaint as it may seem, though, this stop in the corner of South Carolina was a big part of the WTA’s rise as a separate, viable entity in the 1970s. Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini: The tour’s best came to Sea Pines, and their matches often served as previews of what was to come at bigger venues. In 1986, Graf beat Evert for the first time there; by the following year, she would be the new French Open champion. In 1990, an even more extreme battle of the generations took place in the Hilton Head final, when 33-year-old Martina Navratilova faced Jennifer Capriati, who had just turned 14, for the first time.

A changing of the guard moment? Not quite. While Capriati played the type of baseline style that would become the norm in this century, Navratilova, with her 6-2, 6-4 win, showed that serve-and-volley tennis wasn’t dead quite yet, even on clay.

Thirty years later, we roll the videotape.


Capriati was a year younger than Coco Gauff when this match was played, but judging by what we see here, she had the more polished game. Early on, we see her hit a confident slice second serve; sprint forward to put away a forehand on the run; and knock off a forehand winner that elicits a racquet clap from Navratilova—the first of many compliments from the ever-complimentary Czech.

Navratilova is the veteran and, in general, the more aggressive player, but it’s Capriati who dictates through the opening games. Martina is content to sit back and assess this new opponent, by taking pace off the ball and forcing Capriati to generate it herself. Then, on break point, Navratilova shifts gears and turns the teenager’s power back on her. She reaches out and sends a hard, counterpunching forehand down the line that Capriati isn’t ready to handle. Fans of today’s game might see a little bit of Angelique Kerber’s running forehand in Navratilova’s.

And then, much like her fellow GOAT Roger Federer when he gets an early break, Navratilova is off to the races. She gives a lesson in pressure tennis to Capriati, who said afterward, “I’m not used to that kind of game.” Even then, a net-rusher was becoming a rarity.

But Navratilova shows us how to make it work, even against a hard-hitting baseliner. She was patient, picked her spots, and moved her serve around. Most of all, Navratilova closed. She put herself on top of the net and dared Capriati to come up with a perfect shot. You can even hear Evert, who had retired the previous fall and was doing commentary with Dick Enberg, say “Uh oh,” when Capriati left a ball short and Navratilova pounced. The teen made her share of brilliant passes, but not enough.

“She has to go for her shots to beat me,” Navratilova said. “I served well when I had to. There were a lot of close games.”

Most of Capriati’s passes, even some very good ones, ended up on Navratilova’s strings. I had forgotten how good Martina’s forehand volley was. She hits several winners with the shot here, first inside-out and then crosscourt, and is amazingly good at creating her own power with such a short stroke. As an awed Evert says in the second set, after a beautifully constructed point by Navratilova, “That’s perfect playing from Martina.”

Navratilova finished with a perfect flourish, a half-volley that, as she put it, “snuggled in.” After a late, incorrect out call from the line judge, Capriati conceded the point, and the match ended with a hug.

“It was the greatest feeling playing Martina,” Capriati said. “She’s a legend.”

Eleven years later, Capriati reunited with Navratilova when the 18-time major singles champion helped present her countrywoman the Laureus World Sports Comeback of the Year Award alongside four-time Olympic champion sprinter Michael Johnson. (Getty Images)

Did she say “legend” or did she say “ledge”? It was around this time that a gum-cracking Capriati used that word to describe Navratilova in a press conference. I seem to remember the media in the room being baffled, until she clarified that it was short for “legend.”

“It was a learning experience,” Navratilova said. “I was really impressed with her pace. She hits hard from anywhere on the court. And I was impressed with her poise. I’ve never seen anyone like that at 14, and I hope I never see anyone else like that.”

Unfortunately, Navratilova would see a 15-year-old Capriati the following summer at Wimbledon. There, in an all-time stunner, the kid knocked off the nine-time champ in the quarterfinals. Was this the changing of the guard moment? It may have been for Navratilova, who would never win another major. For Capriati, it was an early peak, one that it would take her a decade to surpass.

Even though Navratilova would gradually decline, like everyone else, few have surpassed her. This was her 150th career title; she would finish with an all-time record 167—Federer’s not catching that. Wouldn’t you love to see her take her 1990 game—or, even better, her 1983 game—and put it up against the top women today?