"You can't believe the number of parents with their 9-year-old kids," Sobol said. "And the only question they asked is, 'How did she compare to Jennifer?' It's depressing. A lot of these kids are being pushed. It's happening."
Capriati's tests were performed in 1989 when she was 12. She scored extremely well in aerobic capacity and body fat percentage (12.8 percent), and did 42 situps in one minute. But there was worrisome news also, with noticeable weakness in her external rotators and muscles surrounding the shoulders. She also showed some inflexibility in her hips, hamstrings and lower back, all common areas of weakness in young players. She was given a comprehensive set of exercises and stretching routines, which Pam Shriver could have used a decade ago.
Shriver was labeled a comer when she made the final of the U.S. Open in 1978 at 15. Two years later she had recurring arm and shoulder problems, which have persisted. She skipped Wimbledon and will miss the U.S. Open, recovering from arthroscopic surgery. "By 16 or 17 I had the arm problem," she said. "The upper body strength in females gets real dicey. If I could do one thing differently it would be to get a heck of a lot stronger."
None of that is to say the current crop of players isn't physically and mentally qualified to play the circuit, or that it is inherently wrong for them to be there. Chris Evert is the standard, debuting in the U.S. Open at 16 and retiring there last season after 18 years, a relentless example of how to handle pressure and avoid injury with her precise, flawless mechanics. What Sobol warns is that each case varies.
"Sometimes you get an extremely fit, healthy athlete like Jennifer," Sobol said. "But she's unusual, a very unusual kid both physically and psychologically. There's been a huge assault on her, but she's doing great, she's very balanced."
According to Shriver, there is an easy way to tell if a junior should be permitted to play the circuit: the rankings. She maintained that if they don't show an ability to play among the top 50 consistently, they should be in school. "To me it's horrendous if you're anywhere from 14 to 19 and you're on the tour and you're not in the top half of the hundred."
Above all, there is the danger that they play too much. Seles lost in the early rounds of her first three tournaments this year, suffering from a growing spurt and chronic stiff shoulder. In addition to the physical costs, there are the less tangible social ones. Capriati complained of homesickness and missing her dog during her 10-week stint in Europe, only to return to a loaded schedule. She is moving from her home and school in Saddlebrook, Fla., to a club in Boca Raton, where an endorsement deal has been negotiated for her.
"The day after the Open finished in 1978 I was back in school," Shriver recalled. "I was a U.S. Open finalist, and a senior at a prep school. That was tough. It was a little weird. You definitely don't fit in with the rest of the group."
King contends that injuries, particularly small, nagging ones, can be signs of more than just physical vulnerabilities. They can indicate mounting unhappiness and worries, particularly if parents have quit jobs or made significant sacrifices to train offspring, who are all too aware of what is riding on their successes and failures. She equates the tennis prodigy with the overachiever in school, who becomes too upset when he or she doesn't get straight A's.
"I think a lot of times what they're saying is, 'I'm overwhelmed,' " King said.
Seles, Capriati, Chang, Agassi and their peers are not overwhelmed. They are overwhelming. They also are blessed with apparently cheerful, durable dispositions. "That may be a saving grace," said Mike Estep, coach of Sanchez Vicario. But coaches and parents alike are constantly mulling the fine line between letting gifted athletes pursue their ambition, and yet maintaining a reasonable lifestyle and broadening their experiences.
"As a coach I wouldn't have any moralistic judgment," Estep said. "But as a parent I think I'd feel some concern for the loss of those teen-age years. It will be a long time before we can judge the results. There are the Jaegers, and then there are the Everts, so I don't know. After the applause is gone and the career is finished, to be able to understand Eastern Europe or the stock market is valuable. To not be able to understand, you might be wasting a life."
But there is a common refrain among the great young players that tennis is not costing them anything. For some, it may be an indispensable passion; Evert once called it "a need." Capriati steadfastly maintains she isn't missing a thing because she loves the sport so completely. Chang perhaps most eloquently summed up the curious enjoyment younger players are finding in both playing a game and building very adult careers in a high-pressure, disciplined arena.
"I always take tennis seriously," he said. "When I play tennis, that, to me, is a pleasure. That's why I make it my career. To me, I don't feel like it's wrong to have an obsession to win something. The pleasure, I think, is in playing great points and being in the very tense situations, the great serve, the great volleys, the great returns, the great shots."