Jennifer Capriati

By Cindy Schmerler, Tennis Magazine, May 2000:

Jennifer Capriati spanks a backhand down the line winner past Jimmy Brown, head pro at the Saddlebrook resort outside Tampa, Fla. Even Brown, a former tour player who has logged thousands of hours on court with Capriati over the last five years, is impressed. But Capriati barely looks up as she sidesteps pigeon-toed across the baseline to prepare for the next shot.

A Capriati forehand finds the top of the net and falls back. She slaps her thigh in disgust, then wails with pain. The cause: a series of unsightly red blotches that stretch across her legs, arms, and torso, the result of an allergic reaction to penicillin that was prescribed to treat a case of strep throat. The virus had pushed Capriati’s fever past 102 degrees a few days earlier, prompting her father, Stefano, to literally toss into a tub of ice water. This morning, he and Jennifer made a trip to the emergency room, where she was given Benadryl spray to combat the pain and itching. And still she insisted on practicing.

Capriati has had several weeks off since her semifinal run at the Australian Open – her best Grand Slam showing since reaching the semis of the US Open in 1991 – and it’s clear that she has spent a great deal of that time woking out. She’s fit and trim (she says she’s lost 30 pounds over the last few years and now weighs about 130); her upper body is leaner, stronger, more impressive.
After practice, Capriati hops into a golf cart for the short ride back to her house. It was more than ten years ago – Oct. 31, 1989, to be exact – that a 13-year-old Capriati, on the verge of worldwide fame, donned a hillbilly costume, complete with blackened tooth and braids made to stand upright with the help of a wire coat hanger, and went trick-or-teating in a golf cart through the Saddlebrook grounds. Even when she upended the cart, nearly causing herself and a passenger serious injury, Capriati shrugged it off with little more than a giggle.

Capriati doesn’t giggle anymore. She’s 24, with a still-broad, toothy smile, but now her laugh is easy, confident. Her hair is back to its natual dark brown, with just a few blond streaks. Her nails are painted a vibrant red. Her mantra over the past few years has been “forget the past, live in the now.” And with a newfound inner peace, not to mention a Sanex WTA Tour ranking scampering toward the Top 10, Capriati says she has never been more content.

“Everything is real to me now,” she says.

Capriati has been very reluctant to do interviews since her comeback, but she’s both engaging and forthcoming on this occasion.

“The way I am, what I’m doing, is real. Before, it was a little fake. I was trying to fake that everything was going great and I was happy and da, da, da, da, da. It even felt fake to me because I wasn’t content inside yet. Now it’s what I am. It’s good now. And even if it gets bad again, that’s fine too.”

The “bad” part of Capriati’s life is often told – the years between ages 18 and 20 when she received a police citation for shoplifting an inexpensive ring at a mall, mixed with the wrong crowd at Florida Atlantic University, and spent two weeks in rehab after her arrest for marijuana possession at a scuzzy Miami Beach hotel. Tabloid photographs – repeatedly splashed on TV screens around the world – showed an overwrought, overweight Capriati in a tie-dyed skirt with an earring in her nose.

“The worst part is what I went through afterward, with all the media attention,” she says. “Just the total reaction, my reputation going down the drain. But I was a kid, and you’re not supposed to know what’s going on. You’ve got to experience it. When you’re older and you make the same mistakes, then it’s your fault.
But I don’t put the blame on anybody. Basically, we’re all human and we all make mistakes and don’t know what we’re doing some of the time. So I can’t go around blaming people. Before I blame someone else, I’ll blame myself.”

Capriati has never fully disclosed what happened to her during those two years away fom the tour, not even to her mother, Denise, who has learned to listen to her daughter without asking too many questions. Jennifer has admitted to succumbing to peer pressure and making lots of wrong choices. But she still feels strongly that she doesn’t owe anyone an explanation.

Just because I’m a tennis player and I’m a famous person, that doesn’t take away my rights as a private human being,”

she says, sounding more weary than bitter. When it’s pointed out that she did choose this life, she’s quick to add,

“I know, and I accept that now. That’s the difference. Before I was so angry at the truth, that that’s the way it had to be. But now I realize, it doesn’t have to affect my life.”

Nothing has affected Capriati’s life more over the last year than a newfound work ethic that has been instilled by coach Harold Salomon, a former top 10 player who she hired just before the 1999 Lipton Championships.

Her on-court results speak volumes. Capriati began the year 2000 by beating No.5 Mary Pierce and No.1 Martina Hingis, her new neighbor and occasional practice partner, at a Hong Kong exhibition. Two weeks later, she reached the semis of the Australian Open before falling in two sets to eventual champ Lindsay Davenport. By early March, Capriati was ranked No.14, up from a demoralizing No.101 at the start of 1999.

Capriati steers past the small house that her family rented when they moved to Saddlebrook in the late 1980s, past the front porch where she and her brother, Steven, used to sit and dream of dueling pro careers. She winces as she passes it. We reach the home that Denise and Stefano built not long after Jennifer inked multimillion-dollar endorsement contacts before turning pro. The house is golf-course-community contemporary, with a red tile roof and a geometric glass design above the front door, a touch that Stefano added a few tears ago, after his divorce from Denise and her move across the state to Palm Beach Gardens.
When the front door opens, two black labradors, Happy and Arie, bound out. Inside, lush green plants jistle for space wuth huge, newly arrived cartons of Fila clothing, tube socks spilling out across the coffee table. The Capriati home is neither lavish nor ostentatious, but it’s certainly comfortable. Jennifer still lives with her dad, as does Steven, now 20 and a Florida State University sophomore who plays on the tennis team and who recently changed majors from communication to pre-law.
Surprisingly, the house isn’t filled with Jennifer mementos. On one side of Stefano’s office is a wall of framed magazine covers and photos signed by everyone from fellow tennis players to Elizabeth Taylor. The pictures used to adorn the open-air den, Stefano says, but have since been moved to a more modest post. The wall of fame ends with a giant collage from the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, featuring a dour silver finalist, Steffi Graf, and a shot of a beaming Capriati, gold medal draped around her neck.

Capriati first tested the comeback waters in 1996, yet showed only occasional flashes of brilliance (she reached the final in Chicago late that year, upsetting co-No.1 Seles before losing to Jana Novotna in three sets). But in seven Grand Slam appearances, Capriati won just two matches. It was the spring of ’99 before she realized that if she intended to make a bona fine comeback, time was running out.

“Basically, I had to make the decision of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do,” she says over a lunch of tossed salad topped with grilled chicken by a poolside cafe at Saddlebrook Resort. “Was I going to be in limbo like this all the time and fell like I was going nowhere, that I was just kind of lost, trying to make it back but still not being 100 percent sure. But I didn’t want to give it up completely. I wasn’t happy that way. So I just said, ‘Well, I’m either going to try and do it the right way or not do it at all.’ Because deep down inside, I always wanted to come back and play tennis.”

Capriati’s first step was to call Solomon, with whom she’d worked briefly in 1996 and again in preparation for the ’97 US Open. But Solomon had worked Capriati hard, driving her to the point of exhaustion before advising her to either dedicate herself to the sport or find another line of work. She had responded by sulking, her already fragile ego taking yet another beating.
In December 1998, Stefano called Solomon. His response? “If Jennifer wants me, it’s got to come from her.” By then, Solomon had all but decided to give up coaching (he’d worked Mary Joe Fernandez and Jim Courier, among others) and move his family from Ft Lauderdale to Colorado.
Three months later, his phone rang. “We talked for two hours,” says Solomon, “but Jennifer had me in the first 15 minutes. She said, ‘I’m willing to work really, really hard,’ and I knew she had turned her life around. She’s a wonderful athlete, so gifted physically, and she has the ability to hit the ball so hard. All of the coaches she’s had have given her great fundamentals. She just needed to believe that she was as good a tennis player as anybody in the world.”

Solomon began coaching Capriati on a four-to-five-week trial basis for free (his terms). A major component of their deal is that one day a week, Capriati must plan the entire day’s workout. She may not like the added responsibility, Solomon says, but he feels it teaches her leadership and promotes a cooperative work environment. In the off weeks, Capriati still works out with Brown at Saddlebrook, an arrangement that’s paid for by the resort. As Kevin O’Connor, Saddlebrook’s vice president of sports, puts it, “We’ve stayed behind Jennifer through thick and thin. We feel that it takes a village to make a player, and we’re Jennifer’s home crew.” O’Connor estimates the resort’s contribution at $30,000 to $50,000 annually.
Another key member of Team Capriati is Karen Burnett, head of the fitness program at the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens. While taking Burnett’s spinning class last spring, Jennifer took one look at the instructor and decided, “I want that body.”
Burnett has designed a program for Capriati that’s fun yet strenuous. They do everything from run three miles on a diagonal together – crisscrossing their way down the street to simulate the staccato movements needed on a tennis court – to weight-training at varying angles to increase upper-body strength.
“Jennifer always enjoyed working out,” says Burnett, who has become a close friend and confidant. “But now she’s taken a more realistic look at herself. She knows she can only play her best when she feels her best.”

The payoff, however, didn’t come immediately. In her first three tournaments under the new regime, Capriati was destroyed by Graf 6-0 6-1 at Key Biscayne, beaten soundly by Anna Kournikova at Amelia Island, and lost to Serena Williams in Berlin, though she fid take the first set of that match to a tiebreaker.
Then came Strasbourg.
In this tune-up for the French Open, Capriati defeated ninth-ranked Nathalie Tauziat in the quarterfinals and Elena Likhovtseva in the final for her first tour victory in six years. Capriati jumped from No. 113 to No. 53, and she rode that surge in confidence through the first three rounds of the French Open before falling to Davenport in the fourth round.

Capriati’s real breakthrough, however, came last September at the US Open. It was there, in 1991, that a 15-year-old Jennifer suffered perhaps the most devastating loss of her career. Facing Seles in the semifinals, she served for the match in the third set and twice came within two points of victory before falling in a tiebreaker. Stefano said that match “left scars” on Jennifer, and by the next year, despite a No. 5 seed, she was ousted in the third round by unheralded Patricia Hy-Boulais. One year later, the free fall began in earnest at Flushing Meadows with an ugly first-round defeat at the hands of Leila Meshki of Russia.

But this was 1999 – and a different Capriati. She entered the tournament poised and supremely confident. In the first round, she dismissed former French Open champion Iva Majoli, one of the few real friends she says she has on tour. Next, she rebounded from a first-set loss to take out Seda Noorlander, who’d beaten her at Wimbledon two months earlier. Then, amid the buzz of a large Labor Day weekend crowd, Capriati knocked off Tauziat, the No. 11 seed, in three sets. Even a fourth-round loss to Seles couldn’t dampen her spirits. Nothing could.
Until she walked into the interview room, that is.
Reading from a statement she says she’d prepared before the start of the tournament, Capriati begged the media to forget the past indiscretions and allow her to live in peace.

“Yes, I made mistakes by rebelling, by acting out in confused ways,” the statement read in part. “But I was experiencing my adolescence. Most of you know how hard that can be. When you do it in front of the world, it’s even harder.
“Let me say that the path I did take for a brief period of my life was not of reckless drug use, hurting others, but it was a path of quiet rebellion, of a little experimentation of a darker side of my confusion in a confusing world, lost in the midst of finding my identity. But I’ve put a great deal behind me, moving forward in the right direction… I feel like I’ve started a new chapter in my life, and I need to leave the past behind.”

Capriati hoped that the statement would put a gag order on any further discussion of the past, but when it instead led to even more probing questions, she left the room in tears. Still, she doesn’t regret her decision.

“It was more positive than negative,” she says. “I know from now on that everything I do won’t always be interpreted the way I want it to be. There’s always going to be some negative about what I do, and there are always going to be people who are against me and are going to say bad things. There will always be critics out there. And I’m prepared for that; I know they don’t mean anything.”

Capriati says that the change in her attitude has been a “very long process,” one that involved introspection, talks with friends, family, therapists, and even some tour mates. Graf, who also grew up in the public eye and is no stranger to personal chaos and media controversy, counseled Capriati not to abandon the game for which she was so well suited.
Capriati now insists on having time alone to read (Memoirs of a Geisha is currently on her nightstand), write (she puts down in a journal the feelings she doesn’t want to express out loud), and, perhaps most important, sleep (sometimes 11 hours a day). And she’s dating: Xavier Malisse, a promising 19-year-old player from Belgium.
Indeed, she’s starting to see her cup as half full, not half empty. “I had to realize that there were more good people out there than bad,” Capriati says. “It started with family and friends. I had to believe that they loved me and cared about me.” She pauses. “First, I had to believe in me, that I loved myself first. Then it started around my family and close friends. I knew they were right, that they couldn’t be wrong. So I didn’t believe these other schmucks anymore.”

Family has always been the cornerstone of Capriati’s life. When things began to spiral out of control, the omnipresent Stefano, who for years served as coach, motivator, gatekeeper, and spokesman for his daughter, was made the fall guy. But it can’t be said that he doesn’t love his children. When Jennifer went to Australia in January with Denise, he stayed behind with Steven, following his daughter’s results point by point on the internet or through long-distance phone calls to his brother in Italy, who was able to get Jennifer’s matches on live TV instead of tape delay.

“Jennifer is in my heart, even if she doesn’t win a Grand Slam,” says Stefano. “Even if she doesn’t win anything, I don’t care. She’s a champion for me.”

That wasn’t always the prevailing public sentiment. Until last year’s US Open, Capriati had not a single endorsement deal, having been dropped years before by Prince, Diadora, Oil of Olay, and others. At the first three majors of 1999 she wore outfits purchased off the rack from local pro shops. But then, on the eve of Flushing Meadows, Capriati’s agent, Barbara Perry of IMG, arranged an 11th-hour deal with Fila to provide her with free clothing, but no money – unless she reached the quarterfinals. Jennifer fell one match shy. But she now has paid contract, one that, if she meets certain incentive clauses, could be worth millions.

“A lot of people have asked me why I was willing to take a chance on Jennifer, especially when no one else would,” says John Epstein, president and CEO of Fila USA. “But I believe in her. There’s something about a champion that’s unique; you just don’t lose that. Sure, she made mistakes. So what? Everyone does. But now she’s back trying to fulfill a dream. We want to be part of that.”
So does her family.

“Just going through what she did really helped Jennifer grow up,” says Denise. “Sometimes you have to be humbled.”

Jennifer was in Australia, preparing for the 2000 Open, when she picked up a newspaper and read about some young cancer victims who happened to be big tennis fans. She arranged for four of them to attend the tournament as her guest, to meet other competitors, even to sit in the players’ box for her matches.
There was more to her gesture than met the eye. Early last year, it was discovered that Steven had a tumor in his groin area. He had successful surgery in mid-December, but the ordeal only reinforced the family’s belief that in the grand scheme of things, tennis is secondary.
It was also Down Under that Capriati realized how much support she has from players, something she didn’t sense when she first returned to the tour. Seles said it was “great to see that smile back on Jennifer’s face,” and Davenport said before their semifinal that if she couldn’t win the event, she hoped Capriati would.
Jennifer Capriati, an inspiration to other players?

“I think so,” she says quietly. “A lot of players have felt the way I felt, and even feel that way now. And when they see what I’ve experienced or tried to overcome, they relate to it more. Because it’s tough for everyone. Everyone’s got their own stuff to deal with.”

Monica Seles and Anke Huber, Australian Open 1996

By Claude England, Maryland Match Point

At first I thought it must have been the strong capuccino I had enjoyed after ou last dinner in Melbourne that was keeping me so wide awake, but as the minutes continued to tick by, I came to realize it as the sheer excitement of the past five days at the Australian Open that was still tingling through my body.
So many talented players, great matches, and the magnificent state-of-the-art Australian Open facility. Where to begin?

Mark Philippoussis opened up the center court action with a straight victory over Nicolas Kiefer, who would have, at that time, thought he would go on to upset Pete Sampras in straight sets, only to be thrashed in the following round by fellow Australian Mark Woodforde.
Next it was defending champion Andre Agassi who basically limped onto center court after having the misfortune of hurting a tendon in his knee during a fall on his apartment steps. Andre, wearing a pathetic bandage, somehow won this match against Argentine qualifier Gaston Etlis, who at one point was serving for the match, and at another time was within two points of perhaps the upset of the decade. It was a sad sight from both ends of the court. Etlis played brilliant tennis, showing no mercy for Andre’s inability to move around the court, hitting precision drop shots that the defending champion, instead of racing towards, could only stand and watch. But when it came to winning those final points, Etlis became even more creative in finding ways not to win, and Andre hobbled to a 6-3 in the fifth victory.
Read More

Carlos Moya and Thomas Enqvist

They played at Roland Garros a few years ago, they are now back in Paris as coaches, TV commentators or are taking part to the Legends trophy, and with this new trend of great champions turning to coaching, there’s plenty of past champions to see around the grounds at Roland Garros.

6-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker, coach of Novak Djokovic:

Boris Becker

Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker

Goran Ivanisevic, quarterfinalist in 1990, the year he beat then world No 1 Stefan Edberg in the first round. He now coaches Marin Cilic:

Goran Ivanisevic

Becker, Cilic, Ivanisevic, Gasquet, Mathieu

Sergi Bruguera, winner in 1993 and 1994, coach of Richard Gasquet:

Sergi Bruguera and Goran Ivanisevic

Bruguera and Gasquet

Magnus Norman, finalist in 2000, coach of Stanislas Wawrinka:

Magnus Norman

Michael Chang, winner in 1989 and coach of Kei Nishikori:

Michael Chang

Martina Hingis, finalist in 1997 and 1999. She coaches Sabine Lisicki:

Martina Hingis

Sébastien Grosjean, semi-finalist at Roland Garros in 2001, coach of Richard Gasquet:

Sébastien Grosjean

Fabrice Santoro, doubles finalist in 2004, interviews players after their matches:

Roger Federer

Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova, playing doubles together:

Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova

Kim Clijsters

Martina Navratilova

Kim Clijsters and Martina Navratilova

Iva Majoli, Roland Garros champion in 1997:

Iva Majoli

Anastasia Myskina, first ever female Russian player to win a Grand Slam title (Roland Garros in 2004):

Anastasia Myskina

Former world number one Lindsay Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez, 1993 French Open runner-up:

Lindsay Davenport

Mary Joe Fernandez

1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna:

Jana Novotna

Natasha Zvereva, runner-up in that famous 1988 final against Steffi Graf:

Natasha Zvereva

Nathalie Tauziat and Conchita Martinez practising on court 15, they play the Legends Trophy together:

Nathalie Tauziat

Conchita Martinez

Martinez is now captain of the Spanish Fed Cup team. Tauziat is the former coach of Eugénie Bouchard (below a picture of them two at Roland Garros last year), she now coaches Aleksandra Wozniak:

Nathalie Tauziat and Eugénie Bouchard

Gaston Gaudio, surprise winner in 2004:

Gaston Gaudio

Thomas Enqvist and Carlos Moya, Roland Garros champion in 1998:

Carlos Moya and Thomas Enqvist

Albert Costa, winner in 2002. He is currently coaching Feliciano Lopez.

Albert Costa

Cédric Pioline interviewing Maria Sharapova after her victory over Eugénie Bouchard:

Maria Sharapova

Last Sunday in Miami, Martina Hingis captured her 38th doubles title, her first. 17 years ago in Miami she was crowned the new Queen of tennis. Between those two dates? Lots of highs and lows, trophies and retirements.

Summary of an article published in French sports daily L’Equipe, translated by Tennis Buzz:

By sweeping Monica Seles in final at Key Biscayne 6-2 6-1 in only 44 minutes, Martina Hingis reached the number one ranking at age 16 1/2. A record of precocity that still stands to this day.
Surpassed in all areas of the game, Monica Seles didn’t know how to counter Martina Hingis’ tactical intelligence. The stronger she hit the ball, the quicker it came back at her.

Despite her precocity, her accession to the top was ineluctable, scheduled a long time ago. Scheduled since her birth on September 30, 1980 in Kosice in the then Czechoslovakia? Perhaps not, but her mother Melanie Molitor put a lot of effort for her daughter to succeed. This former good player named her daughter Martina in honor of Martina Navratilova and put her on tennis courts at the age of 3. Two years later she entered her first tournament and in 1987 mother and daughter exiled in Switzerland.

Her progress and exceptional talent attracted agents, sponsors and medias and she hasn’t deceived them. She became junior world champion in 1994 and turned pro the same year.
Her arrival on the circuit at such an early age was criticized by many people who feared Hingis would follow the same path as troubled teen prodigy Jennifer Capriati.

In 1996, Hingis reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the semifinals at the US Open (loss to Graf 5-7 3-6) and finished her season with another loss to Steffi Graf in the Masters final at Madison Garden 0-6 in the fifth set.
1997 was her biggest year (71 wins, 5 defeats). She captured her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne against Mary Pierce and also won in Sydney, Tokyo, Paris, Key Biscayne and Hilton Head. And just before the clay court tournament in Hamburg she fell off a horse. Injured, she didn’t play any clay court tournament before Roland Garros, where she lost the final to Iva Majoli.
She then won at Wimbledon (victory over Jana Novotna 2-6 6-3 6-3) and the US Open (victory over Venus Williams 6-0 6-4).
Even though she won two more Grand Slam titles after this fantastic 1997 season (Australian Open in 1998 and 1999), the Swiss was no longer as dominant when approaching the 2000s.
Overpowered by the Williams sisters and bothered by recurring injuries, she dropped out of the top 10 at the end of 2002, for the first time since 1995. She announced her retirement in May 2003, at only 22, after 209 weeks at the top ranking.

She came back in 2006, reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Roland Garros but in 2007 she tested positive to cocaine at Wimbledon. Suspended for two years by the ITF, she retired again.
Since then she came back to the courts to coach or play a few doubles tournaments, but she was also often on the front page of gossip magazines.