Jennifer Capriati

Jennifer Capriati: Too little, too late?

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.”

For years, Capriati’s defense mechanisms have served her well. Even the most egregious defeat wasn’t her fault because, well, it couldn’t be. That was a credo of the Capriati family. The conditions, the line calls, her opponents’ gamesmanship, all of it conspired against her. Eventually, after a few days or months or years, the disappointment would tourn to anger – and that anger made her play harder and better all ove again. The Rasputin of the WTA tour, she’s been impossible to kill off.

“When she believes in herself, when she puts the work in both on and off the court, she can be unbelievable,” says Harold Solomon, who coached Capriati in 1999 and 2000. “She just keeps coming back. It’s a shame that she’s had to do that as opposed to being able to maintain, but it makes for great drama.”

The Australian is coming – her favorite major and the only one she has won twice – and she’ll try to manage the trick again. At 28, twice as old as she was when she played her first professional tournament, she takes her motivation wherever she can get it. A chance remark in the locker room, a negative article, even body language that reveals she isn’t getting the respect she deserves on the court – and a stalled career is off again at gallop.

“I get on a mission to prove myself,” Capriati said this summer in a California hotel room, where she was nursing wounds both physical (shoulder) and psychological following Roland Garros and Wimbledon. “As soon as people write me off or whatever or players don’t think I’m good anymore, like, ‘She can’t come back again,’ then I’m like ‘I’ll show you.’

She let that last word for a beat, a smile in her voice. Proving herself to the doubters is her greatest pleasure in tennis, and much of the reason she soldiers on, one airport to the next, playing week after week against pros a decade younger. “I don’t need to get my name out there, or to make as much money as I can, or be on a red carpet,” she says. Her attraction to the sport is far more basic. Tennis gets her hungry, and then it fills her up.

Tennis hasn’t seen a career like Capriati’s, though you’d never know it from the numbers. Even taking into account her hiatus of 1994 and 1995 (when she played in only one tournament while dealing with the consequences of a drug arrest, a shoplifting citation, and burnout), her output of three majors, 14 singles titles, and about $10 million in prize money over 14 seasons is underwhelming when balanced against her enormous talent. “Jennifer is the best striker of the ball in tennis, period,” says Kevin O’Connor, the head oftennis at Florida’s Saddlebrook resort, Capriati’s home base.
By contrast, Lindsay Davenport, an ambassador for the game but hardly a tennis immortal, has won three majors, but her 44 singles titles, plus 35 more in doubles, have yielded nearly twice Capriati’s career prize money. Unlike Capriati, Davenport has won the two most important tournaments in tennis, Wimbledon and the US Open. Only once, when Capriati reached the No.1 ranking in 2001, could she have been considered the tour’s player of the year. And it’s arguable that Venus Williams, who won six titles that year, including Wimbledon, the US Open, and Key Biscayne, was better.

But perhaps more than any other active player, Capriati has left footprints. She brings a gladiatorial mindset to bear that results in memorable matches when the stakes are highest. Perhaps no player has waged so many historic battles against different opponents, and in such varied settings. As a 15-year-old in 1991, she beat Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon and lost that epic match to Seles at Flushing Meadows. More than a decade later, her thrilling 2003 US Open semifinal against a cramping Henin-Hardenne stretched late into the night. She stunned Steffi Graf in her prime to win Olympic gold at Barcelona in 1992, came from behind as the lowest seed in the Open era to win a major by toppling Martina Hingis at Melbourne in 2001, and willed her way past Kim Clijsters in the French Open final in a 12-10 third set the same year.

For the last couple of years, she and Serena Williams – whom Capriati beat for the third time this year at the Open – have been the Ali and Frazier of the sport, heavyweights walloping each other with haymakers point after point, so much so that Williams categorizes her rivalry with Capriati as “perhaps the best in women’s tennis”. That makes Capriati, cognizant of her own history, break into a grin. “Thing is, I felt like I had rivalries like that with all those players,” she says. And if you ask them, she did. That’s because it’s impossible to play Capriati and not engage her fully. She is a force of nature across the court, grunting and sweating and whacking the ball from both sides, pushing through her own tactical blunders, disdaining finesse.

At its best, Capriati’s game is about as subtle as a ransom note, and nearly as riveting. Yet even for an opponent, it’s easy to misinterpret.

“She’s the first player I remember seeing hit the ball hard, shot after shot, from both sides,” Lindsay Davenport says.

Adds Dementieva: “She has very strong arms. She has power.” But Capriati’s game is not really about muscle. What she does as well as anyone around is play defense, albeit with both cannons blazing. Her hidden assets are her eyes, which can pick up a ball as it leaves an opponent’s racquet, and her instinct, honed by all those years of competition. “She has a great feeling for tennis,” says Nadia Petrova, who upset Capriati at Roland Garros in 2003. “She knows the game so well.”

Above all, the engine for her success is desire. It must be demoralizing for an opponent to hit what seems to all the world a winner, then watch his solidly built and not particularly graceful woman go and get it, send it back with pace, and scramble back to do it again. “She seems like a big girl, but she’s a lot quicker than you think,” says Ai Sugiyama, whom Capriati defeated in her un to the semifinals at Flushing this year.

Even Capriati doesn’t know how she gets to some of the balls she reaches. On the tactical level, her matching orders are unconscious, sent from somewhere deep down.

“I can’t explain it, except as a way to express myself,” Capriati says. “Doing what I do out there, fighting and going crazy that’s my self expression. That’s my art.”

Yet that fierce desire to win matches doesn’t often manifest itself as an eagerness to improve. She seems incapable of imagining herself as anything but what she already is. An occasional venture into doubles would have given her the confidence to follow her serve to ner, but she never bothered. And the serve itself hasn’t gotten appreciably bette sinec her stuffed-animal days. Even her weight continues to be an issue.

“Jennifer always has problems with those last 5 pounds,” says Solomon. “I don’t think she has been fit – really fit – in several years.”

Instead, she stubbornly plays the hand she was dealt, but with such spirit and tenacity that she can often overcome that lack of imagination? “It’s always been, with her, ‘I’ve got the game, I don’t really want to mess with it,” Solomon adds.

“She’s convinced that if she’s in good shape and playing her hardest, she can play with anyone. And she can. She’s one of the great fighters. She fights her guts out.”

If it’s art, it sure isn’t pretty. But as theater, the plot twists can be utterly compelling.

While stepping uncertainly from adolescence into adulthood with the cameras rolling, Capriati evidently resolved to say nothing of interest to anybody in a public forum. Since then, she has remained on message as well as any politician. Press-conference queries about the coming of age of the young Russians, the vicissitudes of the Williams sisters, or any of the other themes that color the recent history of her sport are met with the same blank stare that she uses for everything outside her immediate field of vision. Her standard litany, “Can we just talk about my match?” has been offered up in a stained voice from San Diego to Strasbourg.

In the locker room, she’s nearly as inscrutable. She has few close relationships with players, in part because she hesitates to befriend rivals. Like Jimmy Connors before her, she has a difficult time working up the necessary fury against a friend – and without that she knows she’s nothing. She has little interest in talking tennis, or even thinking about it on most days, and little to say to most other players beyond the niceties. Petrova says. “She can be in her own little world.” It’s stunning, for example, that in all of their time on the tour together, Capriati and 32-year-old Amy Frazier, one of the few Americans remaining from Capriati’s generation, have never said more than hello to each other.

Away from the tour, Capriati gains a dimension? She’s wealthy, single, and fun-loving, and the image of her dancing in a Manhattan bar in her brassiere a few years ago, as seen in a New York tabloid, is difficult to shake. “She loves fun,” says Barbara Schett, one of her few close friends on the tour. “She’s fun to be around. You know, movies, dancing, going to a club?” So it may be surprising to learn that Capriati writes essays to herself about her most personal concerns. Or that she’s reading up on the history of Buddhism and the life of the Dalai Lama. “When I was coaching her,” Solomon says, “she was reading some pretty heavy-duty philosophy. I was surprised. It was like … Nietzsche on airplanes.”

If everyone doesn’t know that about Capriati, it’s because she doesn’t flaunt her interests outside of tennis like, well, some people. “I don’t need everyone to know about it, and I don’t need to be validated by it,” she says.

“Just because I’m not out there with my own clothing line or some major hobby dosen’t mean I’m not interested in other things. Of all people, I’m not one to be a robot and just play tennis.”

Yet the sport is her centerpiece, and you get the feeling that she isn’t quite ready to begin life without it. Unencumbered by an acting career, a decorating business, a husband, she has only professional tennis, her sanctum since grade school.┬áHer rivals fade away – injured, tired, occupied by life – but Capriati pushes on. To be comfortable, she has come to understand, she must be uncomfortable, her future uncertain and the doubters massing. Well, they’re massing now. Come January, she won’t have won a major title in three years. She hears the clamor of a new generation maching along, threatening to render her irrelevant. Just maybe, it will prove to be what she needs to win big one last time.

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