By Bruce Schoenfeld, Tennis Magazine (November/December 2004)
At 28, Jennifer Capriati knows her days are numbered. Following a dramatic but disappointing run to the US Open semifinals, her hopes of another major victory now rest on the 2005 Australian Open.
Jennifer Capriati had been crying. Her red-rimmed eyes gave her away as she stepped into the interview room in Arthur Ashe stadium after her semifinal loss to Elena Dementieva at the US Open. Usually so calm, so cautious, so media-trained, she couldn’t help but offer a glimpse into her soul.
Who could blame her? It was all so unfair. She’d fought so hard against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, doing what she had to do to win, only to have it undermined by that silly controversy about the umpire’s overrule. For two days, it was all she saw on television, the ball landing near the line and Serena striding toward the chair. Didn’t they have anything else to talk about? Lying in bed at night, she replayed the point over and over, like a bad song she couldn’t get out of her head. Then, against Dementieva, she had found herself a game away from finally reaching a US Open final after all these years. And wouldn’t you know it? The wind was swirling, the sun was in her eyes, and suddenly she was out of the Open again, facing a press conference like so many others.
She’d squandered her fist opportunity, in 1991, as a 15-year-old, losing a memorable semifinal match to Monica Seles in a third-set tiebreaker that would haunt Capriati for years. A decade later, in 2001, she reached another semifinal, this time losing to Venus Williams in straight sets. And then last year she’d served for the match in the semis against Justine Henin-Hardenne but couldn’t close it out. This year’s semifinal against Dementieva, who was floating seves of 60 mph and slower across the net, presented her best chance, and possibly her last.
“I was just thinking, Play the wind the best you can,” she murmured. “I guess I waited for her maybe to make a few more errors. I mean, I can’t really…” She trailed off. “I don’t know.”
By Cindy Schmerler, Tennis Magazine, May 2000:
Jennifer Capriati spanks a backhand down the line winner past Jimmy Brown, head pro at the Saddlebrook resort outside Tampa, Fla. Even Brown, a former tour player who has logged thousands of hours on court with Capriati over the last five years, is impressed. But Capriati barely looks up as she sidesteps pigeon-toed across the baseline to prepare for the next shot.
A Capriati forehand finds the top of the net and falls back. She slaps her thigh in disgust, then wails with pain. The cause: a series of unsightly red blotches that stretch across her legs, arms, and torso, the result of an allergic reaction to penicillin that was prescribed to treat a case of strep throat. The virus had pushed Capriati’s fever past 102 degrees a few days earlier, prompting her father, Stefano, to literally toss into a tub of ice water. This morning, he and Jennifer made a trip to the emergency room, where she was given Benadryl spray to combat the pain and itching. And still she insisted on practicing.
Capriati has had several weeks off since her semifinal run at the Australian Open – her best Grand Slam showing since reaching the semis of the US Open in 1991 – and it’s clear that she has spent a great deal of that time woking out. She’s fit and trim (she says she’s lost 30 pounds over the last few years and now weighs about 130); her upper body is leaner, stronger, more impressive.
After practice, Capriati hops into a golf cart for the short ride back to her house. It was more than ten years ago – Oct. 31, 1989, to be exact – that a 13-year-old Capriati, on the verge of worldwide fame, donned a hillbilly costume, complete with blackened tooth and braids made to stand upright with the help of a wire coat hanger, and went trick-or-teating in a golf cart through the Saddlebrook grounds. Even when she upended the cart, nearly causing herself and a passenger serious injury, Capriati shrugged it off with little more than a giggle.
Capriati doesn’t giggle anymore. She’s 24, with a still-broad, toothy smile, but now her laugh is easy, confident. Her hair is back to its natual dark brown, with just a few blond streaks. Her nails are painted a vibrant red. Her mantra over the past few years has been “forget the past, live in the now.” And with a newfound inner peace, not to mention a Sanex WTA Tour ranking scampering toward the Top 10, Capriati says she has never been more content.
“Everything is real to me now,” she says.
Capriati has been very reluctant to do interviews since her comeback, but she’s both engaging and forthcoming on this occasion.
“The way I am, what I’m doing, is real. Before, it was a little fake. I was trying to fake that everything was going great and I was happy and da, da, da, da, da. It even felt fake to me because I wasn’t content inside yet. Now it’s what I am. It’s good now. And even if it gets bad again, that’s fine too.”
The “bad” part of Capriati’s life is often told – the years between ages 18 and 20 when she received a police citation for shoplifting an inexpensive ring at a mall, mixed with the wrong crowd at Florida Atlantic University, and spent two weeks in rehab after her arrest for marijuana possession at a scuzzy Miami Beach hotel. Tabloid photographs – repeatedly splashed on TV screens around the world – showed an overwrought, overweight Capriati in a tie-dyed skirt with an earring in her nose.
“The worst part is what I went through afterward, with all the media attention,” she says. “Just the total reaction, my reputation going down the drain. But I was a kid, and you’re not supposed to know what’s going on. You’ve got to experience it. When you’re older and you make the same mistakes, then it’s your fault.
But I don’t put the blame on anybody. Basically, we’re all human and we all make mistakes and don’t know what we’re doing some of the time. So I can’t go around blaming people. Before I blame someone else, I’ll blame myself.”
Capriati has never fully disclosed what happened to her during those two years away fom the tour, not even to her mother, Denise, who has learned to listen to her daughter without asking too many questions. Jennifer has admitted to succumbing to peer pressure and making lots of wrong choices. But she still feels strongly that she doesn’t owe anyone an explanation.
Just because I’m a tennis player and I’m a famous person, that doesn’t take away my rights as a private human being,”
she says, sounding more weary than bitter. When it’s pointed out that she did choose this life, she’s quick to add,
“I know, and I accept that now. That’s the difference. Before I was so angry at the truth, that that’s the way it had to be. But now I realize, it doesn’t have to affect my life.”
Nothing has affected Capriati’s life more over the last year than a newfound work ethic that has been instilled by coach Harold Salomon, a former top 10 player who she hired just before the 1999 Lipton Championships.
Her on-court results speak volumes. Capriati began the year 2000 by beating No.5 Mary Pierce and No.1 Martina Hingis, her new neighbor and occasional practice partner, at a Hong Kong exhibition. Two weeks later, she reached the semis of the Australian Open before falling in two sets to eventual champ Lindsay Davenport. By early March, Capriati was ranked No.14, up from a demoralizing No.101 at the start of 1999.
Capriati steers past the small house that her family rented when they moved to Saddlebrook in the late 1980s, past the front porch where she and her brother, Steven, used to sit and dream of dueling pro careers. She winces as she passes it. We reach the home that Denise and Stefano built not long after Jennifer inked multimillion-dollar endorsement contacts before turning pro. The house is golf-course-community contemporary, with a red tile roof and a geometric glass design above the front door, a touch that Stefano added a few tears ago, after his divorce from Denise and her move across the state to Palm Beach Gardens.
When the front door opens, two black labradors, Happy and Arie, bound out. Inside, lush green plants jistle for space wuth huge, newly arrived cartons of Fila clothing, tube socks spilling out across the coffee table. The Capriati home is neither lavish nor ostentatious, but it’s certainly comfortable. Jennifer still lives with her dad, as does Steven, now 20 and a Florida State University sophomore who plays on the tennis team and who recently changed majors from communication to pre-law.
Surprisingly, the house isn’t filled with Jennifer mementos. On one side of Stefano’s office is a wall of framed magazine covers and photos signed by everyone from fellow tennis players to Elizabeth Taylor. The pictures used to adorn the open-air den, Stefano says, but have since been moved to a more modest post. The wall of fame ends with a giant collage from the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, featuring a dour silver finalist, Steffi Graf, and a shot of a beaming Capriati, gold medal draped around her neck.
Capriati first tested the comeback waters in 1996, yet showed only occasional flashes of brilliance (she reached the final in Chicago late that year, upsetting co-No.1 Seles before losing to Jana Novotna in three sets). But in seven Grand Slam appearances, Capriati won just two matches. It was the spring of ’99 before she realized that if she intended to make a bona fine comeback, time was running out.
“Basically, I had to make the decision of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do,” she says over a lunch of tossed salad topped with grilled chicken by a poolside cafe at Saddlebrook Resort. “Was I going to be in limbo like this all the time and fell like I was going nowhere, that I was just kind of lost, trying to make it back but still not being 100 percent sure. But I didn’t want to give it up completely. I wasn’t happy that way. So I just said, ‘Well, I’m either going to try and do it the right way or not do it at all.’ Because deep down inside, I always wanted to come back and play tennis.”
Capriati’s first step was to call Solomon, with whom she’d worked briefly in 1996 and again in preparation for the ’97 US Open. But Solomon had worked Capriati hard, driving her to the point of exhaustion before advising her to either dedicate herself to the sport or find another line of work. She had responded by sulking, her already fragile ego taking yet another beating.
In December 1998, Stefano called Solomon. His response? “If Jennifer wants me, it’s got to come from her.” By then, Solomon had all but decided to give up coaching (he’d worked Mary Joe Fernandez and Jim Courier, among others) and move his family from Ft Lauderdale to Colorado.
Three months later, his phone rang. “We talked for two hours,” says Solomon, “but Jennifer had me in the first 15 minutes. She said, ‘I’m willing to work really, really hard,’ and I knew she had turned her life around. She’s a wonderful athlete, so gifted physically, and she has the ability to hit the ball so hard. All of the coaches she’s had have given her great fundamentals. She just needed to believe that she was as good a tennis player as anybody in the world.”
Solomon began coaching Capriati on a four-to-five-week trial basis for free (his terms). A major component of their deal is that one day a week, Capriati must plan the entire day’s workout. She may not like the added responsibility, Solomon says, but he feels it teaches her leadership and promotes a cooperative work environment. In the off weeks, Capriati still works out with Brown at Saddlebrook, an arrangement that’s paid for by the resort. As Kevin O’Connor, Saddlebrook’s vice president of sports, puts it, “We’ve stayed behind Jennifer through thick and thin. We feel that it takes a village to make a player, and we’re Jennifer’s home crew.” O’Connor estimates the resort’s contribution at $30,000 to $50,000 annually.
Another key member of Team Capriati is Karen Burnett, head of the fitness program at the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens. While taking Burnett’s spinning class last spring, Jennifer took one look at the instructor and decided, “I want that body.”
Burnett has designed a program for Capriati that’s fun yet strenuous. They do everything from run three miles on a diagonal together – crisscrossing their way down the street to simulate the staccato movements needed on a tennis court – to weight-training at varying angles to increase upper-body strength.
“Jennifer always enjoyed working out,” says Burnett, who has become a close friend and confidant. “But now she’s taken a more realistic look at herself. She knows she can only play her best when she feels her best.”
The payoff, however, didn’t come immediately. In her first three tournaments under the new regime, Capriati was destroyed by Graf 6-0 6-1 at Key Biscayne, beaten soundly by Anna Kournikova at Amelia Island, and lost to Serena Williams in Berlin, though she fid take the first set of that match to a tiebreaker.
Then came Strasbourg.
In this tune-up for the French Open, Capriati defeated ninth-ranked Nathalie Tauziat in the quarterfinals and Elena Likhovtseva in the final for her first tour victory in six years. Capriati jumped from No. 113 to No. 53, and she rode that surge in confidence through the first three rounds of the French Open before falling to Davenport in the fourth round.
Capriati’s real breakthrough, however, came last September at the US Open. It was there, in 1991, that a 15-year-old Jennifer suffered perhaps the most devastating loss of her career. Facing Seles in the semifinals, she served for the match in the third set and twice came within two points of victory before falling in a tiebreaker. Stefano said that match “left scars” on Jennifer, and by the next year, despite a No. 5 seed, she was ousted in the third round by unheralded Patricia Hy-Boulais. One year later, the free fall began in earnest at Flushing Meadows with an ugly first-round defeat at the hands of Leila Meshki of Russia.
But this was 1999 – and a different Capriati. She entered the tournament poised and supremely confident. In the first round, she dismissed former French Open champion Iva Majoli, one of the few real friends she says she has on tour. Next, she rebounded from a first-set loss to take out Seda Noorlander, who’d beaten her at Wimbledon two months earlier. Then, amid the buzz of a large Labor Day weekend crowd, Capriati knocked off Tauziat, the No. 11 seed, in three sets. Even a fourth-round loss to Seles couldn’t dampen her spirits. Nothing could.
Until she walked into the interview room, that is.
Reading from a statement she says she’d prepared before the start of the tournament, Capriati begged the media to forget the past indiscretions and allow her to live in peace.
“Yes, I made mistakes by rebelling, by acting out in confused ways,” the statement read in part. “But I was experiencing my adolescence. Most of you know how hard that can be. When you do it in front of the world, it’s even harder.
“Let me say that the path I did take for a brief period of my life was not of reckless drug use, hurting others, but it was a path of quiet rebellion, of a little experimentation of a darker side of my confusion in a confusing world, lost in the midst of finding my identity. But I’ve put a great deal behind me, moving forward in the right direction… I feel like I’ve started a new chapter in my life, and I need to leave the past behind.”
Capriati hoped that the statement would put a gag order on any further discussion of the past, but when it instead led to even more probing questions, she left the room in tears. Still, she doesn’t regret her decision.
“It was more positive than negative,” she says. “I know from now on that everything I do won’t always be interpreted the way I want it to be. There’s always going to be some negative about what I do, and there are always going to be people who are against me and are going to say bad things. There will always be critics out there. And I’m prepared for that; I know they don’t mean anything.”
Capriati says that the change in her attitude has been a “very long process,” one that involved introspection, talks with friends, family, therapists, and even some tour mates. Graf, who also grew up in the public eye and is no stranger to personal chaos and media controversy, counseled Capriati not to abandon the game for which she was so well suited.
Capriati now insists on having time alone to read (Memoirs of a Geisha is currently on her nightstand), write (she puts down in a journal the feelings she doesn’t want to express out loud), and, perhaps most important, sleep (sometimes 11 hours a day). And she’s dating: Xavier Malisse, a promising 19-year-old player from Belgium.
Indeed, she’s starting to see her cup as half full, not half empty. “I had to realize that there were more good people out there than bad,” Capriati says. “It started with family and friends. I had to believe that they loved me and cared about me.” She pauses. “First, I had to believe in me, that I loved myself first. Then it started around my family and close friends. I knew they were right, that they couldn’t be wrong. So I didn’t believe these other schmucks anymore.”
Family has always been the cornerstone of Capriati’s life. When things began to spiral out of control, the omnipresent Stefano, who for years served as coach, motivator, gatekeeper, and spokesman for his daughter, was made the fall guy. But it can’t be said that he doesn’t love his children. When Jennifer went to Australia in January with Denise, he stayed behind with Steven, following his daughter’s results point by point on the internet or through long-distance phone calls to his brother in Italy, who was able to get Jennifer’s matches on live TV instead of tape delay.
“Jennifer is in my heart, even if she doesn’t win a Grand Slam,” says Stefano. “Even if she doesn’t win anything, I don’t care. She’s a champion for me.”
That wasn’t always the prevailing public sentiment. Until last year’s US Open, Capriati had not a single endorsement deal, having been dropped years before by Prince, Diadora, Oil of Olay, and others. At the first three majors of 1999 she wore outfits purchased off the rack from local pro shops. But then, on the eve of Flushing Meadows, Capriati’s agent, Barbara Perry of IMG, arranged an 11th-hour deal with Fila to provide her with free clothing, but no money – unless she reached the quarterfinals. Jennifer fell one match shy. But she now has paid contract, one that, if she meets certain incentive clauses, could be worth millions.
“A lot of people have asked me why I was willing to take a chance on Jennifer, especially when no one else would,” says John Epstein, president and CEO of Fila USA. “But I believe in her. There’s something about a champion that’s unique; you just don’t lose that. Sure, she made mistakes. So what? Everyone does. But now she’s back trying to fulfill a dream. We want to be part of that.”
So does her family.
“Just going through what she did really helped Jennifer grow up,” says Denise. “Sometimes you have to be humbled.”
Jennifer was in Australia, preparing for the 2000 Open, when she picked up a newspaper and read about some young cancer victims who happened to be big tennis fans. She arranged for four of them to attend the tournament as her guest, to meet other competitors, even to sit in the players’ box for her matches.
There was more to her gesture than met the eye. Early last year, it was discovered that Steven had a tumor in his groin area. He had successful surgery in mid-December, but the ordeal only reinforced the family’s belief that in the grand scheme of things, tennis is secondary.
It was also Down Under that Capriati realized how much support she has from players, something she didn’t sense when she first returned to the tour. Seles said it was “great to see that smile back on Jennifer’s face,” and Davenport said before their semifinal that if she couldn’t win the event, she hoped Capriati would.
Jennifer Capriati, an inspiration to other players?
“I think so,” she says quietly. “A lot of players have felt the way I felt, and even feel that way now. And when they see what I’ve experienced or tried to overcome, they relate to it more. Because it’s tough for everyone. Everyone’s got their own stuff to deal with.”
By Susan Reed, People Weekly, May 1994
At 13 she was a bubbly kid with a booming forehand. At 18, she’s burned out, partying hard and facing a drug charge. Is this payback for a stolen childhood?
The seeds of trouble may have been sown even earlier than that brilliantly sunny afternoon in March 1990 when a bright, bubbly 13-year-old tennis prodigy named Jennifer Capriati made her professional debut at a Virginia Slims tournament in Boca Raton Fla. After winning her first match, she was taken aback by the legions of reporters and photographers who hung on her every girlish giggle at the press conference that followed. “I’m excited about my match,” she said, “but I think the media is kind of a little out of control.”
No doubt they were. After all, Capriati had already been touted as the heir apparent to the retiring queen of women’s tennis, Chris Evert, and the hype, it seemed, was totally justified. now, just four years later, it is America’s onetime teen sweetheart who has become tennis’ most spectacular and troubling dropout. On the morning of May 16, police in Coral Gables, Fla, following a phone tip from the mother of a 17-year-old runaway girl, knocked on the door of Room 109 at the Gables Inn motel.
Capriati let them into the $50-a-night room, for which she had registered two days earlier, and permitted a search. In a gym duffel bag, along with her personal possessions, police found a small bag of marijuana.
The lawmen were still in the room when Capriati’s green Mazda Miata convertible – a tournament prize – pulled into the parking lot. Behind the wheel was Thomas Wineland, 19, whom police later identified as a “drifter” from New Milford, Conn, with a criminal record. With him were the missing girl and 19-year-old Nathan Wilson of Hallandale, Fla. Wineland walked toward the room smoking a pipe filled with crack cocaine, which he tried to stuff into his pants when he saw the police. The young woman, from nearby Coconut Grove, later turned over two packets of heroin she had concealed in her crotch area.
As elements of the story came to light at midweek, it became evident that for Capriati this was not just a casual weekend fling but part of a deeper descent into the world of drugs. According to The Palm Beach Post, the arests capped a weekend of partying that had begun Friday night. Capriati had been at a friend’s house in Miami, where she met Mark Black, 19. The night desk clerk at the motel says Capriati checked in under her own name late Saturday, using her own credit card. Black told the Post that the party resumed Sunday afternoon and went on until 4 a.m with as many as 20 visitors to Room 109.
Wineland, who was booked for possession of suspected crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia, told a London tabloid that he and Capriati had smoked crack in the bathroom together.
“She smoked for a couple of hours, and then when we stopped, we started smoking reefers. She was also eating painkillers and drinking.”
Wineland claims she asked him to buy $200 worth of drugs with her money.
According to Wilson’s mother, Capriati was not new to the Miami social scene. For several months, said Susan wilson, “she’d come down [from her home in Boca Raton, just over an hour by car] almost every weekend and just kind of hang out with the group.” But Capriati’s troubles had started long before. “She has had a drug problem for at least a year,” says a close friend.
On May 18, two days after the arrest, Capriati entered the Addiction Treatment Center in Miami Beach. Without knowing all the details of her problem, Capriati’s friends were quick to blame a system that made her a millionaire but denied her so many of the ordinary experiences of childhood and adolescence.
“All this has very little to do with Jennifer,” says Norman Palmer, proprietor of the Palmer Preparatory School in Wesley Chapel, Fla, which Capriati attended until two years ago.
“It has to do with how we position young athletes in our society, what we overlook if there is money changing hands.” Adds CBS tennis commentator Mary Carillo:
“I don’t think children should be allowed to play professional tennis before the age of 18. There ought to be child-labor laws to prevent it.”
Yet Capriati was bred for tennis greatness. While she was still in the womb, her father, Stefano, an Italian-born, movie stuntman and soccer pro, told his wife, Denise, a former Pan Am flight attendant, that Jennifer would be a player. When Jennifer was a baby, Stefano propped a pillow under her and helped her do sit-ups. She held her first racket at 3. By age 12, Capriati was bulldozing girls her age and several years older. Eager for Jennifer to compete on the lucrative pro tour, Stefano pressured the Women’s Tennis Council to exempt Jennifer from the rule barring girls under 14.
“They made the rule because of the burnout of just two players, Austin and Jaeger,” he told World Tennis magazine. “But they don’t know Jennifer. She’s a very happy girl. She gets straight A’s in school, and she’s very healthy. She just wants to improve her tennis.”
At first, all the Capriatis – her parents, younger brother Steven, now 15, and Jennifer herself – were delighted by life on the glitzy international tour. Schooled in little but tennis, Jennifer hit the circuit wide-eyed and naive. In Paris for her first French Open in 1990, she express astonishment that Notre Dame was a cathedral, not a football team.
In 1991, Capriati reached the semifinals of the US Open and Wimbledon and became the youngest woman ever ranked in the top 10. Already she was earning $6 million in endorsement deals alone. Criticized by tennis writer Bud Collins for pushing his daughter, Stefano said, “look, I love my daughter more than you know. But where I come from we have a proverb: ‘When the apple is ripe, eat it.'”
In 1992, Jennifer turned 16, and life on the tour was beginning to pall. Winning only one title that year, Capriati became suly and uncommunicative. Even though she came away with a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics, she described the year as a whole as “a waste.” Says Kevin O’Connor, tennis director at the Palmer School: “On the road she was surrounded by agents, manufacturers, promoters – all people who were asking something from her. She couldn’t share a lot, and I think it was isolating and lonely.”
Plagued by tendinitis and bone chips in her elbow, Capriati suffered a stunning first-round loss at the US Open in early September – and hasn’t played since. When she returned to Florida from the tour, she found it hard to fit in with old friends.
“Her peer group had moved on with their lives,” says O’Connor. “She had to create a group herself. I think she became fascinated with people who didn’t even know who she was. It was better than being around people who wanted something from her.”
Away from tennis, Capriati’s rebellion began to strain family relations. At a swimming pool one day, Stefano snatched an alcoholic drink from Jennifer’s hand and threw it in her face.
“It was a difficult time, with the family members yelling at each other,” says a person close to the Capriatis.
In November, Capriati moved out of her parents’ house in Saddlebrook and into a nearby apartment. A month later she was cited for shoplifting a $34.99 marcassite ring at a kiosk in a Tampa mall. A juvenile at thetime, she explained that it was an accident – that she had simply forgotten she had the ring – and received a private reprimand in family court.
In January, Capriati announced she would take an extended leave from the women’s tour to finish high school.
“She’s not rebelling,” Stefano Capriati insited to The New York Times.
“She’s testing everybody – me, her mother, her friends. She wants to see how they react to her if she doesn’t play tennis. And she’s testing herself too.”
Said Denise Capriati:
“The tennis, the money, the attention… it was like a merry-go-round that starts spinning really fast and you want to jump off, but you’re so caught up in it that you can’t.”
But Jennifer did, and she didn’t stop there. At the end of March, Capriati dropped out of Saddlebrook High School and moved to an apartment in Boca Raton. Then came her second arrest.
“I think a lot of this stems from not being able to do what she really wanted while she was young,” says Andrea Jaeger, 28, whose own promising tennis career was sidelined by injuries before she was 19.
“But in one sense, this could be the best thing that ever happened to her . Maybe this is the wake-up call – not just to Jennifer, but to everybody.”
Adds Mary Carillo:
“Just four years ago she had such unbridled joy and enthusiasm, in her game and in her face. She was such a great story, such a happy kid. It’s painful to look back at that today.”
By Cindy Hahn, Tennis Magazine, October 1992:
Jennifer Capriati, her ankles still encrusted with the red clay of Il Foro Italico, faces a den of crass, middle-aged sportswriters. One, an Italian journalist, will write a story tomorrow whose headline screams that she looks like a pig. The 16-year-old, sweat-soaked and exhausted, hasn’t yet suffered that cruelty, and good thing, for her heart aches enough: She has just lost in a miserable, third-round match at the Italian Open – to a player ranked 25 spots below her. Her eyes swim with tears.
A cool shower – and time alone to soothe her anguish – might have made this post-match grilling less painful. But at her father’s command, Capriati was shuttled from the Campo Centrale directly into the interview room… Do not shower, do not pass go, do not change into you favorite Grateful Dead tie-dyed T-shirt. After all, Diadora is paying Capriati several million dollars to be seen in its tennis togs. Better for her to appear before the TV cameras as a disheveled Diadora girl than as a freshly scrubbed heavy metal-head – the identity Capriati currently prefers.
“Do you think you lost because you’re overweight?”
an Italian reporter asks.
Capriati cannot hear the interrogator and asks him to repeat the question. softening his query, the reporter responds: “Do you think you lost because you’re not in good physical condition?” But Capriati suddenly compehends his original question: He has announced before a roomful of international journalists that she is … fat. New tears glisten on her eyelids as her face flushes crimson.
Mercifully, another question is asked. Capriati concentrates hard, trying to block out the notion that she is fat. The moment of tears, of truth, passes.
When the press conference ends, Capriati retreats through a door into the locker room, where she collapses onto a bench and drops her head to her hands. More moments, more tears. There was no time for a shower, but there is time for tears.
This isolated scene, played out this past May, poignantly dramatizes the tragedy of pro tennis in any season: A parent placing mercenary interests before the emotional needs of his child; a girl forced to answer to uncaring adults; and a teenager’s private problems, such as weight gain, showcased as a media event. Threaded together, these plot lines form a disturbing, if familiar, story in professional tennis.
This report is not about a person but a process; it does not focus on a single star but rather on the constellation of problems in a system that embraces talented children, and then exhausts them. Capriati is just one of the handful of tennage pros whose gifts have launched them on a shuttle-ride to success: Michael Chang, French Open at 17 … Boris Becker, Wimbledon winner at 17 … Andre Agassi, Nike’s multi-millionnaire celebrity at 18 … Steffi Graf, at 19 only the fifth person to win the Grand Slam … Pete Sampras, handed a $2 million winner’s check at 19 … Gabriela Sabatini, a 15-year-old French Open semifinalist … and Monica Seles, the youngest world No.1 at 17.
Jennifer Capriati made her pro debut on this day 25 years ago, aged only 13. So, this weekend we have a look at her career, filled with so many highs and lows:
From Tennis Confidential by Paul Fein, 1990:
The touchy subject of who should get the credit and how much for a star’s success isn’t new.
“I don’t like Braden getting credit for rolling a ball at Tracy in the crib, and Roy Emerson getting credit for her serve when it hasn’t changed? I’ve done it and I’ve done it all. It’s like a work of art. An artist would feel robbed if somebody else put their name on his painting.”
Lately, Rick Macci has felt similarly robbed. He coached whiz kid Jennifer Capriati for two and a half wonderful and important years, starting in January 1987, when she was ten. Now, Capriati mania and the worldwide avalanche of publicity have largely ignored him and his crucial role in her spectacular development.
“To make the story more Cinderella-like for the public, the marketing line is that it went from Jimmy Evert (her first coach) to her dad (Stefano) and now where she’s at today, at the USTA Training Center,” says Macci. “It’s like the two and a half years at Rick Macci’s Tennis Academy she disappeared and I didn’t exist.”
Macci reasonably acknowledges that before he began training her, Jennifer possessed champion qualities as evidenced by her Orange Bowl 12s crown.
“She was probably born a champion, and she fell into the great hands of Jimmy Evert, who instilled tremendous racket preparation and balance in her ground game.”
Yet Macci knew that Chrissie clones with great ground strokes and little else can no longer attain the pinacle of today’s more athletic and diversified game.
“Jennifer had three-quarters of the package before she came to me, but the remaining one-quarter is the difference between being number ten, number five, or number one some day,” says Macci.
Their big mission was to develop the best serve in women’s tennis. “The trap that a lot of women fall into in pro tennis is to just get the ball in play, instead of making the serve a weapon,” he points out.
So the creative Macci devised a multifaceted approach that this enthusiastic prodigy thrived on. For both instruction and inspiration, they watched, on hundreds of occasions, videos of Martina Navratilova serving, “to try to imitate the fluidity and looseness of her service motion.”
To perfect the classic throwing motion indispensable for an explosive serve, Capriati threw a football to Macci for fifteen minutes nearly every day for two and a half years. She also imitated a hula dancer to get her hips and shoulders to roll in sync during the serve.
Since Capriati was quite stiff and mechanical at the outset, Macci stressed wrist-snap to achieve maximum racket-head speed for greater power. So, standing with her feet locked up inside ball hoppers three feet from the fence, she tried, sometimes as many as five hundred times a day, to whack the ball downward and bounce it over the fence.
Even the mino detail of catching the ball Macci threw to her before each serve became purposeful. Capriati gently caught it on her outstretched racket.
“I wanted her to develop soft hands so eventually she could handle the racket like a magician when she’s out of position, like a McEnroe,” he explains.
All the effort and dedication have already paid off. Capriati, now 5’6″ and a solid 125 pounds, has belted serves timed at ninety-seven miles per hour. Braden praised her serving technique as the best he’d ever seen in a girl her age when she was twelve.
What’s more, Macci vastly improved her volley, gave her a topspin forehand, and positioned her more offensively nearer the baseline so her superb ground strokes could better attack the ball on the rise.
Macci’s devotion and affectionfor her shined as brightly as his expertise. Besides an estimated two thousand hours of on-court coaching, Macci, thirty-five, baby-sat for her and her younger brother and took them out for dinner and the movies. He also wrote her scores of motivational letters before the Capriatis moved to Grenelefe from Lauderhill, when her parents droved her two hundred miles each way every weekend for lessons. Capriati appreciated all of it. In a touching note now framed in Macci’s office, she wrote:
“Dou you know something, I really like my service, it’s really gotten better. I can’t wait to come here again. It’s so fun. You’re one cool dude, awesome and great. See ya soon! Love, Jen.”
The love affair was mutual – and her departure last July traumatic. Macci would confide that it left him feeling “like I know what it’s like to have a daughter who’s died.” Eight months later, the gratifying result of their fruitful relationship was her incredible professional debut at the $350,000 Virginia Slims of Florida. There, still only thirteen, she knocked off players world-ranked at numbers 110, 34, 19, 16 and 10 (Helena Sukova) and forced number 3 Gabriela Sabatini to play “my best tennis” before yielding only 6-4 7-5 in the final.
Capriati has even bigger fish to fry, though – namely, the current queen of tennis.
“Every time we played a match, the whole focus would be to prepare her to play Graf”, recalls Macci. “I always hit the inside-out forehand and the heavy slice backhand crosscourt. I had her competing with the best sixteen-and-eighteen-year-old boys in the world all the time. I have no doubt I did all the right things to prepare her.”
Macci is convinced that Capriati’s style will match up quite effectively against the West German superstar.
“Why? Because Jennifer’s best shot is her backhand down the line, and Jennifer can keep the exchanges even or stay in control – whereas when Graf plays other people, she definitely is controlling the show.”
Could amazing Jennifer beat Steffi this year?
“No doubt, in my mind. She has a very legitimate chance,” predicts Macci. “Once thing I’ve always liked about Jennifer is that she has respect for opponents, but she has no fear of anyone.”