Jennifer Capriati

Surviving stardom

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 teenage 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.


One after the other they bust into our collective consciousness as superstars, but the demands of professional sport soon dim their radiance. Growing up under the harsh glare of the limelight, they are beleaguered by the rigors of a tour that never ends and overwhelmed by adult demands placed on their still-developing bodies, minds and emotions. In the cutthroat world of professionalism they learn to distrust many and befriend few.

“I think Jennifer had a taste of it this year, what it’s like to really not be able to trust somebody, and to not be able to do what she wants,”

says Andrea Jaeger, a friend of Capriati’s and a former teen star, who has spent the past yea inteviewing dozens of tour regulars for a book to help young phenoms navigate the minefield of pro tennis.

“And to realize that it is a business – that people just want her to win matches; they don’t want her necessarily to be happy winning matches.”

For Capriati and many other teen superstars, early fame and fortune quickly are followed by a personal and professional slump. But Capriati’s turmoil has captured the most attention, undoubtedly due to the dramatic – and heart-wrenching – fashion in which it occured. Two-and-a-half years after her debut as a carefree giant-killer, she spent most of ’92 in a dispirited funk. The toll pro tennis had taken on the girl billed as “the next Chris Evert” became obvious in January, when she tearfully told the press after a respectable quarterfinal loss in the Australian Open:

“It’s becoming too serious.”

In August, Capriati sang the national anthem from atop the winner’s podium in Barcelona. But her precious gold medal does not cover the cost she and other teen superstars are paying for success. Bob Kain, president of the tennis division of International Management Group (IMG), which has managed such teen superstars as Capriati, Agassi, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander, says:

“What saddens me is that these kids get so good so young. It’s too bad that you can be a world champion at 17 because you’re not ready to be a world champion. I don’t care how much preparation you have, I don’t care how great your parents are and how great your management team is. You’re just not ready. Therefore, they all have trouble.”

Twelve-year-old Venus Williams already has been touted as the next superstar on the front page of the New York Times. Eleven-year-old Anna Kournikova has moved from Russia to Florida – courtesy of management agency IMG – to pursue the ever-escalating riches of pro tennis. Are they the next to rise and fall? As Billie Jean King says,

“Everyone wants a piece of them. People love youth.”

Teen prodigies, of course, are nothing new to tennis: Lottie Dod won Wimbledon at 15 in 1887, and – in the Open era – 16-year-old Evert won the nation’s heart when she reached the semifinals at Forest Hills in 1971. Champion-level tennis quite literally can be child’s play because it does not require the sheer strength needed to excel in pro football, basketbakk or hockey. No does it demand the exquisite precision and flawless consistency most top golfers usually don’t master until their 30s.

World-class tennis, exercise physiologists say, requires agility, speed endurance, balance and eye-hand coordination – all achievable at an early age. What’s more, young people often have a tremendous mental advantage in pro tennis: because their psyches are still developing, they do not perceive pressure as keenly as do their older opponents, a reason young pros so often play with such fearless abandon – at first.

“If you restrict a child’s world you can get her to reach remarkable heights, much greater heights than we ever thought possible,”

says sport psychologist Jim Loehr, Ed.D, of Loehr-Groppel/Saddlebrook Sport Science in Florida.

“You can get a 14-year-old to become among the top players in the world. Bit you sacrifice the normal conditions: You’ve got a child turning into an adult immediately. There are prices to be paid when you skip development stages.”

And never have the rewards for doing so loomed as seductively. Had she been a pro instead of an amateur, Evert would have won $1,200 for that semifinal finish. In 1992 the US Open semifinalists took home $125,000. Evert didn’t have a racquet or clothing contract until she was 18; Capriati signed shoe and clothing deals worth some $5 million before she turned 14.

Children also are lured into professionalism by the tours themselves, whose rules make it easy for kids to join the circuit. Girls are welcome to play when they’re as young as 13 years, 11 months. Boys have to be 14 years old. The women’s tour tossed out a rule several years ago that required school-age athletes to produce a certificate verifying that they were pursuing an education. And, in contrast to the US college sports system, the tour doesn’t restrict the age at which young players can be recruited by agents.

But most telling are the Capriati Rules, as they are known in the industry, instituted in 1990 to exploit the tremendous publicity and revenue potential of then-rookie Capriati. First, tour officials changed the age at which a girl can compete in pro tournaments from 14 to 13 years, 11 months. Why? Capriati wanted to debut at a women’s tournament in Florida three weeks before her 14th birthday. Not suprisingly, it was a good deal for the women’s tennis tour, too. “It made sense for her to start her pro career at a women’s only tournament and not at Lipton, which is a shared tournament with the men… in terms of media coverage and everything else we got,” says Gerry Smith, executive director of the WTA.

The second Capriati rule raised the number of tournaments 14-year-olds are allowed to play from 12 to 13. Again, the change clearly benefited the women’s tour: in October 1990 it became evident that if Capriati was not allowed to compete in an extra tournament she would not accumulate enough points to qualify for the tour’s premier event, the Virginia Slims Championships.

Smith says the rule “was not changed – it was reinterpreted.”

Nevertheless, Capriati promptly skipped a week of school to earn points at the Puerto Rico Open – and 14-year-olds suddenly were allowed to play 13 tournaments a year.

Ironically both original rules were drafted by an international commission on burn-out formed in 1984 to study the pemature exit of such stars as Jaeger and Tracy Austin. But Smith defends the changes, arguing that they are minimal and harmless. Others wonder why, then, they were made at all – and what changes are on the horizon to accomodate even younger girls. Why couldn’t Capriati have waited until after her 14th birthday to play her first pro event, and why wouldn’t she simply have stayed home from the Virginia Slims Championships in 1990? The women’s tour has sent a clear signal that it wants and needs childs prodigies.

“It’s an alarming direction that we’re moving in,” says Loehr. “We’re forcing training into younger and younger age groups, and more and more parents are accelerating the process. That’s a dangerous step.”

That fact was not lost on ProServ agent Dick Dell as he watched 15-year-old Sabatini battle Evert in the semis of the ’85 French Open. As Dell’s thoroughbred matched Evert stroke for stroke in the first set, it became evident she was fully capable of upsetting the champ – and becoming the youngest player to reach a French Open final.
Considering that, Dell then conceived what is – among the slick cadre of tennis agents – a rare and remarkable thought.

“I’m not sure I want her to win this,” he said to himself.

Sabatini lost the match, and Dell was not altogether sorry. “What would she do for an encore?” Dell asks now, rhetorically. “The weight of it. The media and the hoopla would be so big.” Dell knows that the pro tour is difficlut enough for a teen prodigy, even without the added pressures a startling success can impose.

The tour’s physical rigors alone are demanding. “It makes you old fast,” says Aaron Krickstein, who turned pro at 16. “Airports, hotels, year after year. I mean, it catches up with you. It’s not the years, it is just the mileage.”
On top of the travel, there are the daily practices and matches and a tournament schedule that starts in January and ends in December. A month off from tournament schedule that starts in January and ends in December. A month off from tournament play – as Capriati enjoyed before the Italian Open – is a rarity.

“It is all-consuming to be a professional athlete,”

says King, who starred when the tour was a kinder, albeit less lucrative, place to play.

“Your whole life is scheduled around your match, or an interview, or maybe a photograph session? And a week off is really not a week off for a player – it just means they’re not playing a tournament that week. But that week could be one of the hardest weeks of the year as far as working out physically.”

Although tennis players do not have to endure the fierce collisions that occur in football and hockey, the stress on their bodies is still formidable. Jack Groppel, PhD, an exercise physiologist and biomechanist of Loehr-Groppel/Saddlebrook Sport Science, maintains that girls are not strong enough to endure the physical stress of the pro tour until they are 16 or 17, and that boys are not strong enough until 18 or 19. “The most brutal part of our sport is the pounding the legs endure, the acceleration of the racquet head, and withstanding the force of repetitive impacts,” Groppel says. “Their young bodies just aren’t ready to withstand all that force over time.”

More and more pros are finding that out. Krickstein, presently recuperating from a broken foot, has suffered repeated foot and knee problems. Jimmy Arias, who turned pro at 15, has been plagued by arm and shoulder injuries. And chronic injuries shortened the careers of Jaeger, Austin, Ken Carlsson, Jay Berger and Billy Martin, among others. The tremendous advances in sports medicine likely have reduced the number of these tragic injuries, but others are unsalvageable. Twenty-six-year-old Raffaella Reggi-Concato, for instance, has been told she must stop playing soon or wind up in a wheelchair because of an arthritic hip.

With Capriati the stresses have been emotional, not physical. As a 14-year-old phenom, she flourished in the limelight, joking with reporters and chewing bubble gum before big matches. She even touched a soft spot in the gruff Romanian agent, Ion Tiriac. When a reporter asked what most impressed him about Capriati, Tiriac growled: “That she is a kid. She behaves like a 14-year-old kid.”

Tiriac managed Becker when the German boy was thrust into the intenational spotlight at 17 – an ordeal Becker has described as “brutal, simply brutal.” So Tiriac added: “If she jumps from 14 to 21, is not good. Too much, too fast, too soon never help anybody.”

Two-and-a-half years later that warning seems prophetic. Capriati has earned more than $1 million in prize money, but many think she has lost something more valuable? Trying to reclaim her privacy, she often uses a fake name when introducing herself to strangers. She gives surly or monosyllabic answers in press conferences and has seemed dispirited on court. Said one miffed tournament promoter:

“Quite frankly, she was a brat. I think she feels like tennis has taken over her life.”

Most observers shrug off Capriati’s trials as normal adolescent growing pains. In fact, hers are anything but normal. They occur only in the abnormal world of professional tennis, where a girl’s extra weight is a topic for public discussion and where a teen’s case of acne can cause a corporate crisis. (Said one Oil of Olay official about the company’s endorsement deal with Capriati: “It hasn’t worked out like we’d hoped.”)
Within pro tennis, though, Capriati’s troubles are normal – even predictable.

“They’re winning and everything’s great,” says Loehr, who has worked with dozens of top pros. “and then there’s this awakening, and they get hit between the eyes by the pressure.”

The collision sent Sabatini tumbling into a black hole where she stayed for most of her 19th year. “You start feeling pressure from everything,” says the Argentine, who was so depressed she wanted to quit the game. “You start to realize the responsabilities you have, and you say, ‘Whoa, this is a lot.'”

Often that pressure has been building long before the teens set foot on the pro tour. As juniors they are wooed by management agents. Seles signed a contract with Advantage International at age 12, IMG virtually had locked up Capriati by the time she was 12, and Kournikova may have set a record by signing with IMG at 10. The financial terms often allow their fathers to quit working and ‘manage’ their child’s tennis careers – a phenomenon virtually unknown in other sports but common in show business.

“That puts tremendous pressure in the kid to perform,” says Stan Ziegler, Ph.D, a Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist who counsels child actors coping with fame.
“And the parents can say we love you no matter what, and just do your best – all the right things. But if the family then organizes its life around the kid’s fame and money, it doesn’t matter. The kid knows that, ‘Geez, my whole family and the way we live is depending on me.'”

Agents, coaches and parents push the stakes higher when they ‘hype’ a young player in the media to create interest among potential endorsement companies. “You can’t blame them in a way, though,” says King.

“Let’s say they think they have another Capriati – and the child is a bust. They have already got their $6 million to $10 milllion. That’s a great deal.”

It’s a shameless and increasingly common strategy that places undue expectations on a child. Seles decries the practice, and her wrath stems from personal experience.

“I had a friend in Yugoslavia who was really disappointed because she didn’t live up to what was expected of her,” she says. “I don’t think that’s fair. A young child should be allowed to grow up first and not have to worry about, will I get that far? Will I be the No.1 player?”

Unexpected greatness can be equally troublesome. After several years in the shadows, Sampras and Chang each shot to stardom after a stunning Grand Slam win – and fizzled the following year, struggling to cope with the fame and great expectations? Becker’s Wimbledon win at 17 turned him inside out well. “Overnight I became somebody who lives in a big house, van have any car he wants, who knows Lady Di and the president of Germany.”

The experience exacted a tremendous toll on Becker‘s psyche – or, as Tiriac put it, “formed and deformed” him.

“I did not realize what effects it would have in Germany. I was forced to play roles I didn’t like at all: they wanted me to be an example fo the youth; the media wanted me to win everything. That puts a lot of pressure on a boy of 17.”

Growing up precocious and privileged, teen phenoms often are unequipped to handle what would trip up even the most well-adjusted adult.

“It starts when they’re 12 or 13,” says Dell. “They’re unusual, they’ve got tennis companies giving them everything, managers paying attention to them, mom and dad trying to do everything they can for them. The effect is that it stunts their growth, because they don’t have to deal with problems on their own.”

Yet suddenly they are pressured by tour officials to schmooze with corporate moguls at sponsor parties, to deliver speeches at awards banquets, to attend to adoring fans and to radiate maturity and intelligence – the image tour sponsor pay for. Says Dell:

“They’re thrown into the pro tennis world at 14, and they’re treated as if they’re 25.”

After one banquet, a tour official reprimanded Seles for forgetting to thank a sponsor in a speech; Seles fled the room in tears. A teenage Graf resented widely for her – i.e, her father’s – unwillingness to attend awards dinners and sponsor parties. “You just kind of get in a position where you’re not acting like yourself,” says Jaeger, who was reprimanted by a WTA official at age 14 for playing tag with some ball kids.

“You’re acting the way other people want you to act because you don’t want to get in trouble.”

It’s a cutthroat business world in which children need to be surrounded by a protective – often stifling – entourage of adults. “Everyone brings their own people now,” says Arias, who claims the camaderie among the players he enjoyed as a teen prodigy in the mid 80s has all but disappeared. “It is just a bunch of separate people fighting it out, which makes it a lot tougher, I’m sure, on the kids.”
It’s not surprising that Capriati, a social butterfly by nature, flourished in Barcelona, whee the Olympic Village cafeteria was off-limits to parents and where athletes were more interested in exchanging phone numbers than endorsement figures. “It’s been so different from the tour,” she said. “It’s more fun.”

How do the tours help their child stars deal with the pressures inflicted on them? The wTA, an organization whose mission is to help the players, boasts 13 physical and massage therapists, yet it employs trainers but no psychologist. Clearly the players’ physical health is the top priority.
That’s shameful considering the players’ mental health may be most at risk. Most psychologists agree that children thrust into an adult and other harsh lessons too soon?

“They lose an essential part of their youth, which is an innocence, and a freedom to screw around, to make mistakes, to try out different identities,” says psychiatrist Ziegler. “Living that life takes a lot of the playfulness out of them.”

In the short-term the system is working – if a player’s wins are the gauge of success. Capriati has brought home the gold medal, Agassi nabbed the Wimbledon title, and Graf is back in good form. But do the wins justify the means? Borg, Wilander and John McEnroe are thought by many experts to be harbingers; more top players are expected to leave the game in their prime – and return later, unable to cope without the sport yet unable to recapture their past glory.
But if producing – and sustaining – healthy and happy champions is the measure of success, pro tennis is failing its youg stars miserably. “You just can’t keep watching these kids go through these heartaches,” says Jaeger.

“The industry is like, OK, let’s keep pumping the money in, let’s keep going. But they’re not worried about if these people are growing up happy. These kids arer a special breed .. but they’re not going to be leaving tennis happy.”

Leave a comment