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 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.

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Jennifer Capriati, Boca Raton 1990

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!”

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