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.”

Surviving stardom

Jennifer Capriati

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.

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Capriati and Sabatini, Boca Raton 1990

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.