By Dave Scheiber, Sports Illustrated, March 1990
Dazzling new tennis star Jennifer Capriati, 13, showed that her future is now by deftly handling more-experienced opponents – and the media – in her professional debut.
While hundreds of reporters descended of The Polo Club in Boca Raton, while thousands of spectators spilled through the gates, while other players at the Virginia Slims of Florida gazed at the mob scene with bemusements, the cause of all the excitement, 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati, was curled up inside Chris Evert‘s elegant stucco house several blocks from the stadium court, watching a rerun of The Bionic Woman. “It was a way for me to relax a little”, she said.
As it turned out, Capriati couldn’t have picked a more fitting show to tune in to as she savored some privacy with her father, Stefano, her mother, Denise, and her brother, Steven. Later than afternoon, faster than you could say Lindsay Wagner, Capriati dismantled 10-year veteran Mary Lou Daniels 7-6 6-1 – for the record, the date was March 6, 1990 – to earn a victory in her first match as a pro. By week’s end Capriati, the kid with the grown-up groundstrokes, had served stirring notice that a new American tennis heroine had arrived, ready to pick up where Evert left off when she hung up her racket last year.
“This wasn’t a debut,” said Ted Tinling, the 80-year-old tennis eminence. “It was a premiere!”
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
Long before she played her first match as a professional, Jennifer Capriati was the hottest thing going in women’s tennis. Labeled a prodigy at the age of nine and, without having hit a ball yet as a pro, a thriving corporation at the age of thirteen, she had already been the subject of lenghty stories in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The National, and the rest of the world would follow shortly. Each would tell essentially the same story:
Capriati was the oldest of Stefano and Denise Capriati’s two children. Stefano was Italian; Denise, American. They had met in Spain; Denise had lounging by the pool when Stefano had popped his head out of the water and asked her to dinner. He was fifty-four, she was thirty-nine. He was dark and stocky, she was blond, petite, and very pretty. He had played soccer, worked in real estate and, for the past ten years, focused much of his life on Jennifer. Denise was a flight attendant. They had moved from Fort Lauderdale, where Jennifer had taken lessons from Chris Evert’s father, at age five, to Saddlebrook, a tennis resort. There, the people who rran the resort, the USTA and anyone else who could get in the door, fought to take credit for Jennifer’s prowess.
Jennifer Capriati wasn’t just another teenager who could stand at the back of the court and bang ground strokes all day. Forst and perhaps foremost, she was American. Born on Long Island, raised in Florida (after a brief interlude in Spain), she was an all-American girl who happened to be very pretty. She had her father’s dark skin and broad shoulders and her mother’s attractive features.
Women’s tennis was desperately in need of American star with sex appeal. Even at thirteen it was apparent Capriati was the answer. Ever since Chris Evert had first flashed across the tennis horizon in 1971 en route to icon status, tennis had been in search of the next Chrissie. Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger had burned out. Pam Shriver never won Grand Slam singles titles. Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini weren’t American. Neither was Monica Seles, even if she had lived in Florida for four years, even if she did speak English with a midwestern accent.
Everyone in tennis has always agreed on the need for American stars. When no American-born male reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament in 1986, near panic set in. That was why Andre Agassi became so rich so fast when he began to win in 1988. He was the American that sponsors, television people, bureaucrats, and fans were starving for.
The situation had never gotten quite that desperate on the women’s side. Evert was still a top-five player right up until she retired, at the 1989 US Open, and Martina Navratilova was accepted as an American by some, if not by all. Starting out 1990, though, the only American-born player in the Top ten was Zina Garrison, who was black. The people who control the money in tennis – corporations – don’t think there is much market for a black player in their sport. As a result, Garrison, the fourth-ranked player in the world, didn’t even have a shoe or clothing contact.
That was where Capriati came in. By age nine, agents and manufacturers were already negotiating with her father. She was wearing Ellesse clothing by the time she was ten. Cino Marchese, the IMG agent who is the majordomo of the Italian Open, remembers having a handshake agreement with Stefano to bring his daughter to the Italian Open when she turned pro. Jennifer was nine when the two men shook hands.
In 1989 Capriati won both the French and US Open junior titles, confirming her status as The Next One. Already, the Women’s Professional Tennis Council was passing what would become known as “Capriati Rules”. The first (Capriati I) stated that a player could not participate in professional events before turning fourteen. The second (Capriati II) amended that to say that a player could play a pro event in the same month that she turned fourteen. Capriati turned fourteen on March 29; Boca began on March 5. What a coincidence! The press release announcing the amendment specifically said that these rule changes were not aimed at Jennifer Capriati. (And Zina Garrison’s lack of a clothing contract had nothing to do with her being black…) […]
Capriati was entered in the tournament as a wild card since she didn’t have any points on the computer yet. Every tennis tournament reserves several places in its draw for wildcards – Boca Raton had two spots saved – in case a big star decides to enter at the last minute or an injured player comes back from an injury or an up-and-coming young player comes along. Wild cards are frequently abused by tournament directors, but in Boca they had been used perfectly. the two wild cards were Capriati and Anke Huber, the fifteen-year-old German who, in Australia, had been dubbed the next Graf.
Huber wasn’t about to get noticed this week, though. It was as if the rest of the tennis world had become invisible; This would turn out ot be a wild and fascinating tournament, but no one would pay attention. Jen-Jen mania was completely out of control. […]
Tuesday, March 6, was the day the hype finally became reality. By this time Capriati had been forced to sneak off to faraway courts in order to practice in private. Evert had gone off to Aspen for the week to leave the stage clean for her protégée. The day was hot and sunny. Capriati-Mary Lou Daniels was the fifth match on the schedule. By noon there was chaos in the press tent because there weren’t enough seats to go round. There was no press section, so seats in the stands had to be found, and there were not very many of them available.
By 3:40 the stands were packed and the crowd was restless. The previous match had been over for twenty minutes but there was no sign of Capriati. Finally, at 3:43, Capriati and Mary Lou Daniels appeared. They walked exactly three feet onto the court and were besieged by photographers. They stopped and posed. And posed. And posed.
Daniels was almost a perfect opening-day opponent for Capriati. She was twenty-eight, married, and had been featured in commercials for Coast soap at one point. She had once been ranked as high as No. 15 on the computer, but that was eight years ago, when she was still fresh-faced Mary Lou Piatek. […]
Seeing her up close for the first time, amny in the crowd were surprised by her side. Still three weeks away from fourteen, Capriati was almost five feet seven and weighed at least 130, perhaps more. None of it was fat, though; she was simply big boned and extremely mature.
“She doesn’t hit the ball like a thirteen-year-old,” Daniels said. “She hits more like Steffi Graf.”
Capriati’s nerves and Daniels’ competence kept the first set close. Capriati lost the first point of her career – history will record that it came at 3:57 pm, when she netted a backhand – but quickly won the first three games. Daniels came back to lead 6-5, but Capriati won the tiebreak 7-1, then won the second set easily, 6-1. It had taken seventy minutes.
Everyone was happy. The crowd knew it had seen the real thing and responded with a standing ovation. Daniels was impressed. “She’s worth all the hype,” she said. Other players who had wandered out to watch were equally impressed. “Gee, I wish I had brought my camera,” Pam Shriver said, watching all the commotion. Stefano was happy, too, accepting congratulations from all sides. John Evert (Chris sister and Capriati’s agent), who from that day forth would be knwon in the media as “Colonel Parker” was thrilled to see that the kid could handle it all.
Even the ravenous media was happy. When Capriati came in to a jammed press conference, someone asked her about what she thought of the whole experience.
“Well, she I think playing my first match was great. But the media is really sort of out of control.”
The rest of the week was all Jen-Jen. In the second round, she recovered from losing the second set 6-0 to Claudia Porwik to win her first three-setter. She upset eighth-seeded Nathalie Tauziat and crushed No. 4 Helena Sukova 6-4 -1 in the quarterfinals. Then she beat Gildemeister in the semis. In five days she had won five matches, beating three top-twenty players along the way. She also played doubles with Billie Jean King, even winning a first round match.
Capriati’s joyride ended in the final, when Sabatini beat her 6-4 7-5. But it didn’t matter. the match was close, the crowd loved the whole thing, and it proved that as good as the kid was, she was human. People were beginning to wonder.
What made it all so appealing was Jen-Jen herself. She was completely thirteen, full of giggles and “I means” and “you knows.”
John Evert had advised the Capriatis not to hire a media trainer, at least for the moment. Evert figured – correctly – that a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old who sounded like a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old would be much more appealing than someone who sounded trained.
Virginia Slims, image conscious to a fault, had kept a media trainer on staff for years. More often than not, this training was beneficial to the players although one could tell from a hundred miles away when a player had just been through the sessions. Seles, for example, never referred to a tournament as just “Washington” or “Houston”; it was always “Virginia Slims of Washington” or “Virginia Slims of Houston.”
For now, Capriati would be allowed to be herself. She mouthed all the appropriate clichés and charmed everyone right out of their socks. When the week was over, there was no doubt that a star had been born and that Jen-Jen mania would continue unabated for quite a while. Bud Collins summed it up best when the tournament was over.
“What was that old broad’s name?” he asked. “Everet? Evette? Played twenty years ago, right?”
In 1990 at the Virginia Slims of Capriati in the year of Jen-Jen I, Chris Evert might as well have played twenty years ago.
From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy
Evonne Fay Goolagong had two unusual names. The Evonne happened because her mother wanted something different, instead of the familiar French spelling. Goolagong means ‘tall trees by still water”. Her father was an itinerant sheep shearer and farm hand and she was one of eight children brought up in the bush: the rolling wheat and sheep country noth of the Murrumbidgee River. They lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of Barellan and were the only Aboriginal family in the vicinity. Fishing for yabbies, small crayfish, was fun for the children? But there was no money to throw around and they were a long way frol the tennis scene. They were a long way from most scenes.
It might have stayed that way – goodness knows what Goolagong would have been doing now – but for a local initiative that produced the War Memorial Club, equipped with four tennis courts. That happened in 1956 when Goolagong was five years old. The courts could not have been nearer home and within a couple of years she was acquiring a taste for the game.
Destinity took her by the hand again when London-born Vic Edwards, who ran a huge coaching operation from Sydney, was induced to include Barellan in his network of week-long tennis schools held in bush towns while children were on holiday. The two coaches assigned to Barellan insisted that Edwards himself should have a look at Goolagong and he flew hundreds of miles to do so. Edwards was impressed by her movements, reactions, and ball sense – that innate judgement of a ball’s speed and bounce on which timing depends.
She was nine then. Two years later she made her first trip to Sydney for intensive coaching and at 13, in 1965, she moved in with the Edwards family. Edwards became her legal guardian, assuming responsibility for her education on and off court. But Goolagaong retained close ties with her own family and with Barellan, where local residents dipped into their pockets to subsidize her career. She was already winning age-group championships and in 1970 she became Australian junior champion without losing a set and went on her first overseas tour. Edwards, a hearty bear of a man, was to travel with her as coach, manager, and surrogate father until 1976, by which time Goolagong had matured and married and was assuming an independent life style.
Edwards thought she could win Wimbledon in 1974. But in 1971 Goolagong surprised him. She surprised everybody. In January she led Margaret Court 5-2 in the third set of the Australian final but was afflicted by cramp and could no longer do the running Court demanded of her. A month later she beat Court in the Victorian final. Over to Europe, where Goolagong won the French championship at the first attempt without conceding a set and then beat Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court in consecutive matches to become Wimbledon champion. At the age of 19, on her second trip overseas, the brown-skinned lass from a tin shack in a bush town had won two of the game’s four major titles.
Goolagong did not find it easy to build on that, partly because her toughest rivals had worked out how to play her, partly because her game veered wildly between splendour and mediocrity, and partly because she was not greedy for glory. She lost 11 of the 18 Grand Slam finals she played. That was hardly surprising, because the players who beat her were King (four times), Court and Chris Evert (three each), and Virginia Wade. At the same time one could not resist a frivolous line of logic: Goolagong loved playing tennis, had to win in order to enjoy another match in the next round, but was deprived of that incentive whenever she reached a final. She was a determined competitor but tended to value the game more than the prize. She was not in the same class as King, Court and Evert when it came to a concentrated, total commitment to success.
By Mike Lupica, 1975
1975 was going to be the year something caught up with Chris Evert, the year anything caught up with her. She was advancing into her twenties, and her Miss Teenage days were behind her, and before she turned into a full-fledged American institution like General Motors or All in the Family, everyone was waiting for fate to step in and, well, at least slow her down.
Fate could take any form, as far as the rest of the women tennis pros were concerned: the anti-trust laws, a blemish, a couple of lousy backhands, a broken shoelace, anything. Maybe she would even lose a match every month or so. Maybe. Wrong.
This is what Chris Evert did in 1975: she won 16 of 22 tournaments, and 94 out of 100 matches; the only player to play her on equal terms was Billie Jean King, who split four matches with Chris, and now she doen’t even play singles anymore; she won over $363,000; she extended her winning streak on clay courts to 90 matches; she won the French Open, the Italian Open and the Family Circle Cup for the second consecutive year; she won her second Virginia Slims championship.
More? She won her first United States Open, just about the only major title to elude her this side of Florida seat in the US Senate; she won the L’eggs World Series of Women’s Tennis (and began 1976 by winning it again); her only real frustration came in blowing her semifinal match at Wimbledon against Billie Jean; she closed out 1975 by winning her last eight tournaments, and 35 straight matches.
By now, you must get the idea. Nothing was going to slow Chris Evert down in 1975, just like nothing – not even World Team Tennis, which she’ll join this year – looks like it can slow her down in 1976. Maybe in 1989 or so, she may start to slip a little.
There’s no doubt about it anymore. The kid is no flash in the pan.
Of course, what this remarkable success does is just put more pressure on this remarkable young woman. Each loss will become a curiosity item, something for those who collect weid pieces of trivia. Thirty years from now, a bunch of old dowdies will be sitting around on the tea room veranda at Wimbledon, wearing old Virginia Slims t-shirts, and be saying things like: “I remember the time she lost a match in seventy six…”
And she knows this, knows now even before she has reached full maturity that each time she steps on the tennis court she is under the most critical of microscopes, as those who still cannot comprehend her genius wait fo her fall. Did she lose only six matches last year? Maybe this year six losses may be too many as far as the public is concerned.
“You know, it’s funny,” she was saying early last year, home resting in Fort Lauderdale before she again rejoined the tour and her assault on all the records that mean anything in tennis.
“No matter what I do, it’s never quite enough. They always want something more from me.”
What that “more” is, perhaps only Chris Evert can ever know.
Each little slip of hers is regarded as some kind of portent of Bad Things to Come. She looked about ready to bury Billie Jean at Centre Court in King’s last Wimbledon, up 2-0 in the final set, and holding two break points. But then the indomitable King, who someday with Evert and Suzanne Lenglen will be the one of three women tennis players worth talking about in this century, reached down into her still-hungry spirit and came back to win.
So the critics wondered: what will happen to her confidence now? What happened? She went out over the last six months of the year and played better than she had in the first six months. So much for portents.
When she and her sometimes friend James Connors played Billie Jean and Marty Riessen in that Love Doubles thing in Las Vegas in December everyone waited for her to fold a little again. All Chris did that day was play the best tennis on court, better than King, better than Riessen, even better than Connors. Not only that, she was absolutely charming in the process. Each time she plays now, the myth of the Ice Maiden melts a little more.
“It’s a shame, the public doesn’t know the real Chris Evert like I do”, Billie Jean has always said. “I wish they could hear more of the things she says when we’re playing doubles, as partners or otherwise. She’s a fun person. I mean she’s really a fun person.”
She is not a racket thrower, or a tantrum thrower because she is simply not like that. She is one who worked hard, was taught to win, does not make mistakes. Wins.
“Boy, I worked hard on my game when I was younger,” she says, answering the unspoken question of how she has come to be the player she is. “I worked from the time when I was 15 and 16. I would always practice five or six hours a day. I mean, I was playing that much tennis in the hot sun.”
“I can’t do that now,” she continues? “I wouldn’t want to do that now. When I’m off the tour for any length of time, I still like to practice, but never more than ninety minutes, or two hours, at a time. I’m not a fanatic about it anymore.”
She has more interests away from tennis than she ever did, and that is no small feat for someone who for the last five years of he life has spent her time in airports and in hotels and on tennis courts, or commuting to wonderful places like that. But slowly she has cultivated an interest in photography. And now she has succeeded Billie Jean as president of the Women’s tennis Association, as that organization moves into the most crucial stage of its existence. No, she is no longer Miss Teenage Tennis. This girl is a woman now.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m the Old Lady,” she laughs, referring to the celebrated nickname for Billie Jean. “Some of the younger girls come up and ask for advice. Mostly, it’s the european girls, asking for advice on clothes and where to shop and thingd like that. But still I’m kind of flattered by that. They’re asking me the same kind of questions I asked the older players when I first came out on the tour.
Perhaps the question they should all be asking her is: How do we beat you? Chris’ game has more variety and substance than ever as she moves into 1976. Her volley has improved sixty percent in the last year, as evidenced by her surprisingly strong net play in the Love Doubles match. The announcers kept informing their viewers how suspect Chris was at the net, and Chris just kept swatting away short balls for winners.
“I’ve been working very hard on my volley and my second serve,” she said in ’75, “because I think they’re the two parts of my game that most need improvement – two of many.” So she went to work and improved them.
She is also even tougher on the court than ever before, and this was evidenced in the US Open final, when Evonne Goolagong, who again this year will be her most consistent nemesis, had her in deep trouble in the second set. But Chris, beneath that placid and seemingly impenetrable placid exterior is really a little hitwoman on the court, pulled heself together and won her first Open.
“My father taught me to win,” she says of Jimmy Evert, her only coach. “To give one hundred percent and to win.”
Dad done taught her good, right?
The competition for her this year on the Slims tour will be strong, of course. Free from political pressures, that new American citizen Martina Navratilova will be out to show that she indeed can become the world’s best player. And there are old familiar favorites – Margaret Court and Virginia Wade and Olga Morozova and Kerry Melville Reid – around to see if they can play a couple of winning tunes.
But, as always, Chris will be there, and Chris will be winning, and maybe 1976 will be the year she conquers what seems to be the only real problem left for her in tennis: How to handle Jimmy Connors.
By Steve Fink, World Tennis magazine, December 1989:
I met Chris Evert on the day she reached her first Grand Slam final in Paris 16 years ago, when I interviewed her for this magazine. We became good friends, and I found myself immersed in her career.
She soon realized that I was regarded by the sport’s inner circle as her Boswell, as the primary source of information about her record, and she knew that my recollection of her matches was invariably sharper than her own. Throughout her career she would defer to me at press conferences from Palm Beach to Wimbledon whenever she could not answer a question about herself.
But my involvement with her went much deeper than that. I attended both of her weddings, sat with her family at many of her critical contests in the major championships, and spoke with her frequently before, during and after tournaments to offer council.
Given those circumstances, and the highly unusual of our alliance, I made it a practice, with few exceptions, not to write about he. The conflict would be clear-cut, and I saw no reason to abuse proximity of my position. But this is the time to relax journalistic binds a bit and offer my intimate assessment. Hers was a unique journey through the seventies and across the eighties, and to understand how Evert impacted her era, there is only one place to begin.
In September 1970, at the age of 15, Evert planted the first true seed of her greatness by toppling the world’s No.1 player Margaret Court 7-6 7-6 in the semifinals at Charlotte, North Carolina. Only weeks earlier, Court had completed the Grand Slam by winning the US Open at Forest Hills on grass, but on the clay of Charlotte the Fort Lauderdale prodigy erased the rangy Australian. It was unmistakably a sign of what was to come.
“The last time Evert and Navratilova played was similar to their first encounter in Akron. There was no fanfare, no fuss. On a cold night in Chicago – Jimmy Evert’s childhood hometown – Navratilova defeated Evert 6-2 6-2, and they shook hands afterward, same as always.
The date was November 14, 1988. They had no way of knowing that by the luck of the draw, they’d never oppose each other the entire last year of Evert’s career.
The ledger on their rivalry froze at eighty matches, sixty of them finals, with Navratilova leading forty three victories to Evert’s thirty seven.
“For sixteen years we were left alone on Sundays in that locker room. All in all, I think we handled it pretty damn well. ” Chris Evert