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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Chris Evert

By Steve Fink, World Tennis magazine, December 1989:

I met Chris Evert on the day she reached her first Grand Slam final in Paris 16 years ago, when I interviewed her for this magazine. We became good friends, and I found myself immersed in her career.
She soon realized that I was regarded by the sport’s inner circle as her Boswell, as the primary source of information about her record, and she knew that my recollection of her matches was invariably sharper than her own. Throughout her career she would defer to me at press conferences from Palm Beach to Wimbledon whenever she could not answer a question about herself.

But my involvement with her went much deeper than that. I attended both of her weddings, sat with her family at many of her critical contests in the major championships, and spoke with her frequently before, during and after tournaments to offer council.
Given those circumstances, and the highly unusual of our alliance, I made it a practice, with few exceptions, not to write about he. The conflict would be clear-cut, and I saw no reason to abuse proximity of my position. But this is the time to relax journalistic binds a bit and offer my intimate assessment. Hers was a unique journey through the seventies and across the eighties, and to understand how Evert impacted her era, there is only one place to begin.

In September 1970, at the age of 15, Evert planted the first true seed of her greatness by toppling the world’s No.1 player Margaret Court 7-6 7-6 in the semifinals at Charlotte, North Carolina. Only weeks earlier, Court had completed the Grand Slam by winning the US Open at Forest Hills on grass, but on the clay of Charlotte the Fort Lauderdale prodigy erased the rangy Australian. It was unmistakably a sign of what was to come.
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By David Irvine, World of Tennis 1986

Mats Wilander won the men’s title for the second time in four years. Wilander, at 17 the youngest player to become a French singles champion in 1982, confessed a conscious willingness to present himself to the public as “more interesting” than he had been hitherto. In that aim he undoubtedly succeeded. The Swede, who had not won a tournament of any sort since lifting the Australian crown in Melbourne six months previously, delighted a sell-out crowd in prising the championship from Ivan Lendl’s grasp by a margin: 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 – which accurately reflected the pattern of play. Wilander’s failures in Hamburg and Rome, where he was mesmerised by Miloslav Mecir, had suggested that his career might be in decline. McEnroe, Lendl and Yannick Noah, who had shown touches of his 1983 form in winning the Italian championship, all appeared better bets than Wilander for the men’s title. Only the Swedish press corps had absolute faith in their man, because “this is the one he really wants”. All the same, Wilander must have been mighty relieved to find himself in the opposite half of the draw to Mecir, his bete noire, and among non-Swedish journalists there was still no discernible shift in the odds on Wilander until he routed Germany’s golden boy, Boris Becker, in the second round with a display which cast an entirely different light on the 20-year-old’s attitude.

If Wilander’s positive play delighted, his frank dealings with the press proved more intriguing still. “There have been times recently when I’ve been very bored with tennis”, he admitted. “But I’ve been looking forward to the French for some months. I agree I play well in big events – I don’t know why. Maybe deep inside I’m not concentrating 100 percent at some other tournaments.” He acknowleged that the French public had disliked the way he had played in winning the title in 1982. “And so did I”, he added. “Unfortunately that was the only way I knew how to play then. Now I’m trying to change. I want to be more interesting.”

During the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf the week before the French, McEnroe had questioned Wilander’s motivation and speculated whether the Swede really wanted to be the best. “I’m trying as hard as I can to be no.1”, was Wilander’s assurance, “but if it means practising eight hours a day I’m not prepared to do that. It’s not worth it.” Wilander had a more direct answer to McEnroe in the semi-finals , where he beat him 6-1, 7-5, 7-5, matching the American for touch at the net and then destroying him with the accuracy of his passing shots.

Lendl‘s progress to his sixth defeat in seven Grand Slam finals was even more convincing than Wilander’s for at no time did he drop a set. When the crunch came, though, the Czech’s serve let him down, and once again his inflexibility left him without an alternative strategy to fall back on. His appearance – gaunt, hollow-eyed and nervous – revealed the enormous strain he felt. Wilander, though, played with almost carefree abandon, his subtle command of the conditions (seen best in the confident way he spiralled so many lobs into the wind) underlining his absolute belief in himself.

Extract from The Rivals by Johnette Howard

“For the thirteenth time, Evert and Navratilova were about to meet for a Grand Slam title. For all but a brief portion of their rivalry, either Evert or Navratilova had been number one in the world. But as they began unzipping their racket bags to prepare to play, Navratilova remained the prohibitive favorite. Evert had not beaten Navratilova in a major in two and a half years – not even at the French Open, a tournament that Evert once ruled as imperiously as Navratilova now did the grass courts of Wimbledon.”

“Over the next three hours, everything that their rivalry had ever revealed about Navratilova and Evert as athletes, as people, as friends, was about to be reprised on the floor of Roland Garros.
Even on television, their grunts of exertion were audible. So were the sandpapery sounds their sneakers made as they slid into their shots on the clay. When it was through, Navratilova came around to Evert’s side of the net to sling an arm around her. And Evert held on to Navratilova’s hand just an instant longer when their arm-in-arm walk off the court ended at the umpire’s chair, then turned away so Navratilova couldn’t see her shoving away a few tears.

The match they play was dazzling – not for its perfection, necessarily, but more for the stomach-gnawing tension, and the stirring determination they displayed. Later, piercing the details back together was hard for both of them. The emotions were that lingered. There had been so many gasp-inducing shots and disasters avoided by each of them, so many narrow escapes and cliffhanger moments in which one of them gouged out a service break or won a couple of games in a row, and then, as if disoriented by the sudden lightness and shedding of pressure, the distracting thought of victory, each of them would give back a game or two. They’d inexplicably plow a makeable shot into the net, and stand there, staring, as if to say, ‘How in the world did I do that?’
And the drama would begin all over again…

Navratilova would shriek at her mistakes now and then as if she wanted to shatter every champagne flute on the grounds of Roland Garros. Once or twice Evert directed a burning stare at a linesman whom she suspected of missing a close call. She kicked the ball into the net once when it disobeyed her. Her own errors sent her eyebrows slamming down hard in irritation. Then the right side of her mouth would tick up ever so slightly into a scowl.

Navratilova was, as usual, breathtaking. The way her racket finished high above her shoulder on some strokes, she looked like a musketeer slicing up the air. Evert, as always, seemed lost in concentration, her movements precise, her timing pure, the path of her strokes perfectly grooved. She seized the first set from Navratilova, 6-3. She had Navratilova down 2-4, 15-40 in the second set too, then couldn’t apply the sleeper hold. Navratilova slithered free and held serve. Then she broke Evert’s serve. Evert served for match at 6-5 in the second, but again Navratilova pulled out the service break she absolutely had to have and forced a tiebreaker, which she also won to stay alive.
And the drama began all over again..

The last two games that Navratilova and Evert played were a blur of inspired shots, each more pressure-packed and spine-tingling than the last. Evert held for a 6-5 lead, but only after surviving a 0-40 deficit and four break points in the longest game of the match.
With Navratilova serving now at 5-6, Evert got to match point and lofted a tantalizing lob over Navratilova’s head, and Navratilova turned and gave chase, only to see the ball parachute down just inches long.
Befitting all that happened in the 2h40 they had already played, the last point of the match was unforgettable. Navratilova sent a serve sizzling down the center line of the court, and Evert hit a backhand return. Navratilova answered with a forehand reply and Evert tried a crosscourt backhand. Navratilova slammed another forehand down the middle that pushed Evert a perilous six feet behind the baseline. When Evert hit back a short reply, Navratilova came rushing in to pounce on the ball.

Evert looked doomed – especially when Navratilova smashed a backhand toward the left corner of the court and took the net. But Evert not only made it to the ball, she lunged and jackknifed forwad, slid her feet into perfect position one last time, and somehow sent a two-fisted backhand winner from the left corner down the left alley on a low hard line. Navratilova’s head snapped around just in time to watch as the ball slammed down just in.

The final score was 6-3 6-7 7-5 for Evert. Navratilova hadn’t lost the match. She’d forced Evert to win it.

“We brought out the best in each other,” Navratilova said