Jennifer Capriati

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.”

Mary Pierce and Nick Bollettieri

From Nick Bollettieri‘s book, Changing the game:

When Mary Pierce first came to the academy in 1988, she was 13 years old and already had a blistering forehand. Her father, Jim Pierce, a belligerent man obsessed with getting his daughter to succeed, felt that the competitive envionment would help her improve more quickly. Although Mary lived in the dorms for some time, Jim continued as her coach.

Determined to maintain his control over Mary and her career, he soon pulled her out of the academy. Mary turned pro two months after her 14th birthday and started to play on the women’s tour. Meanwhile, her father was often abusive, unable to control his temper. He cursed at other players and their parents, and verbally terrorized Mary and her mother, Yannick. It got so bad that he was officially banned from tournaments. In the summer of 1993, Mary finally succeeded in getting a restraining order against her father, but she and her mother traveled with bodyguards for a while.

I know those were traumatic times for Mary, although personally, I have never had difficulties with Jim Pierce. We have always been able to talk to each other, and I credit him with the work ethic he instilled in Mary and for helping her develop the smashing “Bollettieri forehand”. I see him now occasionally, and he has become a gentler man, no longer afflicted by demons.
At the time, however, those demons plagued him and he often acted out in hurtful and damaging ways. With such a difficult background, it is no wonder that Mary was both a fierce competitor and a bundle of terrible insecurity about who she was and what she was capable of. During matches, when things didn’t go well, she often looked to her coaches for help, even though it was against the rules for them to advice to their players. She would also get down on herself, become irritated and tank matches when she an into difficulties with her opponents.

I followed her career from a distance. By the time she was 17, Mary was ranked among the top 15 women players in the world, and I saw that she had great potential to do better. At some point when we ran into each other at a tournament, I mentioned to her that she was always welcome at the Academy to train and feel safe.
Soon after, I received a phone call from her. She asked me to be her coach, and I agreed but I had conditions. I wrote her a note, “Mary, if I am to be your coach, there are two conditions that you must agree to: First, you are out of shape, in fact you are fat! You have to commit to a physical conditioning program that will get you into you top level of fitness. And second, I will stay with you until you not only believe in yourself, but also never need to look over to your support team, raising your hands in frustration and acting like a baby.”
I was deliberately blunt to put her on notice that our work together would not be a walk in the park. After reading the note Mary came to me with tears in her eyes asking why I wrote such hurtful things about her. My answer was very simple “It’s the truth and it’s my way or the highway.”
She agreed!

In 1994, our first full year together, Mary improved her ranking from No.12 to No.5 in the world. During the French Open, her road to the finals included beating defending champion Steffi Graf in two sets 6-2 6-2. Unfortunately she ran out of steam against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. That finish set the pattern for the rest of the year; she reached the finals of five tournaments, but won none.[…]

Mary arrived in early December to get ready for the 1995 Australian Open – it would be my first time here, coaching her and Boris Becker.
For the next few weeks Mary trained as if she were preparing for a Navy Seal mission. In addition to her two on-court workouts each day, she also spent two hours in our weight room. Mary continued to work hard over the holidays and her full-time coach Sven Groeneveld and her conditioning coach, José Rincon. But after I returned from a week of skiing in Aspen and met her in Australia for the warm-up tournament, she still hadn’t shed all of her extra body weight.

I confronted her about it and finally got through to her. That night, with a bit of help from Sven and José, Mary located all the junk food she had hidden in her appartment – her favorite indulgence was tiramisu – and threw it out. The next day she arrived for practice with a new attitude, all business and commitment.

Boris lost in the first round and generously told me to stay and take Mary to the championship. She breezed through the first three rounds in straight sets and dispatched Anke Huber, a German player who had given her problems in the past. In the quarterfinals, she faced Natasha Zvereva, a tough player from Belarus. I knew Mary could win, but I had a different problem. I had commited to hosting a Super Bowl tennis clinic in Florida and would miss the semis and finals.
Mary won against Zvereva as expected, and after the match I reminded her that I had to leave for the United States. I knew it would be difficult for both of us. I told her that she was ready – her game was technically close to perfect. The only thing she needed was confidence in herself to deal with adversity on the court, to look deep inside herself, not hope to find answer in the coaches’ box. She didn’t need me or anyone else to win the tournament. We both had tears in ours eyes as we hugged and parted.

Mary’s opponent in the semifinals was the No.3 player in the world, Conchita Martinez. I called Mary during my stopover in Hawaii and gave her the game plan Sven and I had worked out. I made it to bradenton in time to watch the match on television. I was on pins and needles, but I needn’t have been. Mary ruled the court, whipping Conchita 6-3 6-1. After the final point, when she did look over the coaches’ box, her arms were raised in victory and I knew the change had happened. At that moment, Mary came into her own; she finally accepted that she was a winner! I only wished I could have shared that moment with her by being there.

The finals were almost a foregone conclusion. She dominated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-3 6-2 to win the Australian Open. I was in heaven. When she called me, I was momentarily at a loss for words I was so happy. Then I congratulated her on her victory and told her, “Remember what I put in my note to you? I told you that I’d stay with you until you can stand on your own two feet. Today, you showed not only yourself, but the entire world that Mary Pierce is a winner. You were perfect and now you’re ready to rely on your full-time coach, Sven Groenveld.” Then I added, “Go out, get the biggest tiramisu you can find and eat it all by yourself. You have earned it.”

Andre Agassi and Michael Stich, 1994 US Open

Excerpt from Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open

Going into the 1994 US Open, I’m number 20, therefore unseeded. No unseeded player has won the US Open since the 1960s.

Brad (Gilbert) likes it. He says he wants me unseeded. He wants me to be the joker in the deck. You’ll play someone tough in the early rounds, he says, and if you beat them, you’ll win this tournament. […]

Because of my low ranking, I’m under the radar at this US Open. (I’d be more under the radar if Brooke weren’t on hand, setting off a photo shoot each time she turns her head.) I’m all business, and I dress the part. I wear a black hat, black shorts, black socks, black-and-white shoes. But at the start of my first-rounder, against Robert Eriksson, I feel the old brittle nerves. I feel sick to my stomach. I fight through it, thinking of Brad, refusing to entertain any thought of perfection. I concentrate on being solid, letting Eriksson lose, and he does. He sends me sailing into the second round.

Then – after nearly choking – I beat Guy Forget, from France. That I take out Wayne Ferreira, from South Africa in straight sets. […]

Then I walk into a classic Chang buzz saw. He’s that rare phenomenon – an opponent who wants to win exactly as much as I do, no more, no less. We both know from the opening serve that it’s going down the wire. Photo finish. No other way to settle it. But in the fifth set, thinking we’re destined for a tiebreak, I catch a rythm and break him early. I’m making crazy shots, and I feel him losing traction. It’s almost not fair, after such a back-and-forth fight, the way I’m sneaking away with this match. I should be having more trouble with him in the final minutes, but it’s sinfully easy.
At his news conference, Chang tells reporters about a different match that the one I just played. He says he could have played another two sets. Andre got lucky, he says. Furthermore, Chang expresses a great deal of pride that he exposed holes in my game, and he predicts other players in the tournament will thank him. He says I’m vulnerable now. I’m toast.

Next I face Muster. I make good my vow that I will never lose to him again. It takes every ounce of self-control not to rub his head at the net.

I’m in the semis. […] Martin, who just beat me at Wimbledon, is a deadly opponent. He has a nice hold game and a solid break game. He’s huge, six foot six, and returns the serve off both wings with precision and conviction. He’ll cane a serve that isn’t first rate, which puts enormous pressure on an average server like me. With his own serve he’s uncannily accurate.[…]

Still, as the first few games unfold, I realize that several things are in my favor. Martin is better on grass than hard court. This is my surface. Also, like me, he’s an underachiever. He’s a fellow slave to nerves. I understand the man I’m playing, therefore, understand him intimately. Simply knowing your enemy is a powerful advantage.
Above all, Martin has a tic. A tell. Some players, when serving, look at their opponent? Some look at nothing. Martin looks at a particular spot in the service box. If he stares a long time at that spot, he’s serving in the opposite direction. If he merely glances, he’s serving right at that spot. You might not notice it at 0-0 or 15-love, but on break point, he stares at that spot with psycho eyes, like the killer in a horror movie, or glances and looks away like a beginner at the poker tables.

The match unfolds so easily, however, that I don’t need Martin’s tell. He seems unsteady, dwarfed by the occasion, whereas I’m playing with uncommon determination. I see him doubt himself – I can almost hear his doubt – and I sympathize. As I walk off the court, the winner in four sets, I think, He’s got some maturing to do. Then I catch myself. Did I really just say that – about someone else?

In the final I face Michael Stich, from Germany. He’s been to the final at three slams, so he’s not like Martin, he’s a threat on every surface. He’s also a superb athlete with an unreal wingspan. He has a mighty first serve, heavy and fast, and when it’s on, which it usually is, he can serve you into next week. He’s so accurate, you’re shocked when he misses, and you have to overcome your shock to stay in the point. Even when he does miss, however, you’re not out of the woods, because he falls back on his safe serve, a knuckleball that leaves you with your jock on the ground. And just to keep you a bit more off balance, Stich is without any patterns or tendencies. You never know if he’s going to serve and volley or stay back at the baseline.
Hoping to seize control, dictate the terms, I come fast out of the blocks, hitting the ball clean, crisp, pretending to feel no fear. i like the sound the ball makes off my racket. I like the sound of the crowd, their oohs and aahs. Stich, meanwhile, comes out skittish. When you lose the first set as quickly as he does, 6-1, you instinct is to panic. I can see in his body language that he’s succumbing to that instinct.
He pulls himself together in the second set, however, and gives me a two-fisted battle. I won 7-6 but feel lucky. I know it could have gone either way.
In the third set we both raise the stakes. I feel the finish line pulling, but now he’s mentally committed to this fight. There have been times in the past when he’s given up against me, when he’s taken unnecessary risks because he hasn’t believed in himself. Not this time. He’s playing smart, proving to me that I’m going to have to rip the trophy from him if I really want it. And I do want it.
So I will rip it. We have long rallies off my serve, until he realizes I’m committed, I’m willing to hit with him all day. I catch sight of him grabbing his side, winded. I start picturing how the trophy will look in the bachelor pad back in Las Vegas.
There are no breaks of serve through the third set. Until 5-all. Finally I break him, and now I’m serving for the match. I hear Brad’s voice, as clearly as if he were standing behind me. Go for his forehand. When in doubt, forehand, forehand. So I hit to Stich’s forehand. Again and again he misses. The outcome feels, to both of us, I think, inevitable.

I fall to my knees. My eyes fill with tears. I look to my box, to Perry and Philly and Gil and especially Brad. You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moments of you greatest triumph. I’ve believed in Brad’s talent from the beginning, but now, seeing his pure and unrestrained happiness for me, I believe unestrainedly in him.

Reporters tell me I’m the first unseeded player since 1966 to win the US Open. More importantly, the first man who ever did it was Frank Shields, grandfather of the fifth person in my box. Brooke, who’s been here for every match, looks every bit as happy as Brad.

Sampras and Ivanisevic, Wimbledon 94

Excerpt of Pete Sampras autobiography A champion’s mind:

“During the grass-court season, Todd Martin won two tiebreakers to beat me in the final at Queen’s Club, and I moved on to Wimbledon to defend my hard-earned title. I lost just one set, to Todd, as I served and volleyed my way to the final opposite Goran Ivanisevic.

I had my hands full with Goran, as I would on grass during my entire career. A great deal of Goran’s juice at Wimbledon came from being a left-hander. That natural edge made his first serve even better and more effective than mine; I really believe it was. When Goran’s serve was on, it was pretty much unreturnable on grass. He was the only guy I played regularly who made me feel like I was at his mercy. I never felt that against that other Wimbledon icon, Boris Becker.

But my second serve was better than Goran’s, and the key to beating him for me always was getting hold of and punishing his second serve. Goran put tremendous pressure on my service games, because he usually held so easily. I felt that if I played one shaky service game against him and was broken, the set was gone. Very few people were able to make me feel that way, once I’d figured out the grass game. That was very tough, mentally. Goran’s serve also gave him a huge advantage as a returner – he could afford to take huge, wild cuts with his return. If he happened to tag two of those in a row, I was down love-30 – and from there anything could happen.

The final was incredibly fast tennis, played on a hot day, with balls flying all over the place at warp speed. It was a gunfight, both of us dodging bullets we could barely see, hoping to connect with a semiluck return here, or tease out an error there. That kind of tennis calls for a firm hand and intense focus. I proved slighly more steady in the crapshoot tiebreakers, and after I won two of them, Goran folded up. I won 7-6 7-6 6-0.

The match marked the high point in the growing debate about grass-court tennis. A growing chorus of critics charged that Wimbledon tennis had degenerated into a serving contest between two giants who almost couldn’t lose serve, but couldn’t break each other, either. Goran and I personified the trend, never mind that neither of us was the biggest guy around. Our big serves and our desire to end points quickly added up to a perfect storm of Wimbledon controversy.
Tennis at Wimbledon, some pundits said, was in danger of becoming irrelevant, because ongoing technologies had produced more powerful rackets that buried the needle on the power meter deep in the red. Even the tabloids got into it, running pictures of prominent politicians and others in the Royal Box sleeping soundly. Ostensibly, that had something to do with the way the game was being played.”

Pete Sampras, 1994 Australian Open champion

Excerpt of Pete Sampras autobiography A champion’s mind:

“Down in Australia for the start of 1994, I played my first two matches and then came up against a newcomer from Russia, Yevgeny Kafelnikov. People had warned me about this tall, rangy kid with straw-blond hair, a jack-o’-lantern grin, and a high-quality two-handed backhand. His forehand was one of te all-time ugly shots in tennis; he hit it with a bent arm and it looked really ungainly, especially in comparison to his smooth, sweet backhand.
But that forehand was a better shot that it looked, and the guy had plenty of talent – enough to push me, hard. What’s worse, I never really did well with guys I hadn’t played before. What advantage I had in terms of my reputation was offset by the fact that it usually took me a match or two to figure a guy out, and get into a comfort zone against his unique game.

But I survived Kafelnikov, then beat Ivan Lendl and got my old friends Jim Courier and Todd Martin, back to back, in the semis and finals. I rolled through Todd in straight sets to win my third major in a row. I was on fire. Next I won the two big US winter had-court events, Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. I began to sense that people were a little in awe of me, a little fearful, and I liked that feeling.”