LA COSTA — Jennifer Capriati was last seen blowing kisses in the Barcelona breeze.
The object of her affection?
A hunk of gold that became the pinnacle of her Olympic experience.
A similar scenario is unlikely after the championship of the Mazda Tennis Classic is decided Aug. 30 at the La Costa Resort & Spa. The prize is a bright yellow sports car.
The car could go to Capriati, the Olympic gold medalist from Saddlebrook, Fla., who won a dark green convertible when she defeated Monica Seles in the 1991 championship. Only this time she won't have to stash it away until she has her driver's license.
"I'm driving it a lot, especially in this heat," Capriati said recently from Florida. "The convertible is amazing . . . It was the first car I ever won, so it's special."
To win this year's model, the world's seventh-ranked player will have to get past its fourth-ranked one.
She is Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini, the top-seeded player who joins Capriati as a headliner in the 28-player draw of the $225,000 tournament. But the field is packed with names: Nine of the top 10 players who will compete here recently represented eight countries in the Olympic games.
Sabatini is the exception. Like Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova, she was ineligible to play in the Olympics because she missed the Federation Cup.
Fresh off Barcelona's clay courts are eighth-ranked Conchita Martinez of Spain, who won silver in doubles with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario for the host country. Martinez returns for her second appearance in San Diego, after she lost to Capriati 6-4, 6-0 in the semifinals in 1991.
Zina Garrison, a two-time Olympian and a teammate of Capriati's in Spain, is the 14th-ranked player in the world. She has been in San Diego all week training and makes her fourth appearance in this tournament. She was a finalist in 1989 against Steffi Graf; she lost last year to Capriati, 6-1, 6-4, in the quarterfinals.
Other Olympians who are pursuing the top award of $45,000 and the car are 10th-ranked Anke Huber of Germany, 11th-ranked Jana Novotna of Czechoslovakia, 13th-ranked Nathalie Tauziat of France, 19th-ranked Leila Meskhi of Russia, 21st-ranked Judith Wiesner of Austria and 24th-ranked Kimiko Date of Japan.
Capriati would be thrilled to cap this Olympic homecoming with a victory, giving her back-to-back tournament titles going into the Aug. 31 start of the U.S. Open.
"One of the reasons I want to play (in San Diego) is so I can be in the match mode already," she said.
Compared to Sabatini, she already is.
Chris Evert, part of the NBC team that will broadcast the tournament, gives Capriati the nod in the San Diego event, based on her recent tournament testing.
"Jennifer is more match tough," Evert said. "She's played in Mahwah (New Jersey) and the Olympics. Gabby, this is her first time back since Wimbledon. I'm sure she's worked hard, but she may be a little rusty. We'll have to see how fast the courts are, but my money's on Jennifer. She's riding high on confidence from the Olympics."
Garrison said she is also wary.
"You don't know how far someone else's confidence will take them," she said. "That's the thing about tennis. You always have an opportunity to play well."
Capriati, 16, was never better than during her three-set stunner over defending Olympic champion Steffi Graf of Germany, the highlight of Capriati's Catalonia coup.
"Graf's the only top player she hadn't beaten," Evert said. "Now she's done that. There's no reason she can't win a Grand Slam."
Said Capriati: "This is a big step for me, proving to myself I can beat all of them."
And what a grand time she had doing it. Capriati's performance was surpassed only by her sheer joy at being part of the spectacle.
For veteran Garrison, Capriati's glee was refreshing: "It was fun to be on a team with the ones who hadn't been there before. The adrenaline was so high for (Jennifer). She's so young, and so excited."
Evert and Garrison agreed that the Olympics needs a few years to reach Grand Slam status among players: Performance isn't figured into rankings; only two of the top five players were represented this year; and Olympic officials need to figure out a way countrymen won't play each other until later rounds.
"That takes some of the luster away, but you can't take a gold medal away, that's a very exciting thing for (Capriati)," Evert said.
Garrison remembers watching Capriati's match against Huber--all three are in the same half of the draw this week--and thinking gold early in the week.
"I thought she had a chance if she got past the first couple of matches," Garrison said. "She is an adrenaline player. After she beat Huber I told her, 'Jen, you can win the gold.' She laughed and said, 'Zina, don't put that pressure on me.' "
Capriati handled it like an old pro. Now, perhaps, the memories of a tumultuous year, during which she fought with her parents, changed physically and lost some matches she wasn't expected to, will be erased.