Jennifer Capriati, 1990

From Tennis Confidential by Paul Fein, 1990:

The touchy subject of who should get the credit and how much for a star’s success isn’t new.

Robert Lansdorp, Tracy Austin‘s coach for a decade, used to grow incensed when the more famous Vic Braden was mentioned as her first coach. Lansdorp finally lashed back:

“I don’t like Braden getting credit for rolling a ball at Tracy in the crib, and Roy Emerson getting credit for her serve when it hasn’t changed? I’ve done it and I’ve done it all. It’s like a work of art. An artist would feel robbed if somebody else put their name on his painting.”

Lately, Rick Macci has felt similarly robbed. He coached whiz kid Jennifer Capriati for two and a half wonderful and important years, starting in January 1987, when she was ten. Now, Capriati mania and the worldwide avalanche of publicity have largely ignored him and his crucial role in her spectacular development.

“To make the story more Cinderella-like for the public, the marketing line is that it went from Jimmy Evert (her first coach) to her dad (Stefano) and now where she’s at today, at the USTA Training Center,” says Macci. “It’s like the two and a half years at Rick Macci’s Tennis Academy she disappeared and I didn’t exist.”

Macci reasonably acknowledges that before he began training her, Jennifer possessed champion qualities as evidenced by her Orange Bowl 12s crown.

“She was probably born a champion, and she fell into the great hands of Jimmy Evert, who instilled tremendous racket preparation and balance in her ground game.”

Yet Macci knew that Chrissie clones with great ground strokes and little else can no longer attain the pinacle of today’s more athletic and diversified game.

“Jennifer had three-quarters of the package before she came to me, but the remaining one-quarter is the difference between being number ten, number five, or number one some day,” says Macci.

Their big mission was to develop the best serve in women’s tennis. “The trap that a lot of women fall into in pro tennis is to just get the ball in play, instead of making the serve a weapon,” he points out.

So the creative Macci devised a multifaceted approach that this enthusiastic prodigy thrived on. For both instruction and inspiration, they watched, on hundreds of occasions, videos of Martina Navratilova serving, “to try to imitate the fluidity and looseness of her service motion.”

To perfect the classic throwing motion indispensable for an explosive serve, Capriati threw a football to Macci for fifteen minutes nearly every day for two and a half years. She also imitated a hula dancer to get her hips and shoulders to roll in sync during the serve.
Since Capriati was quite stiff and mechanical at the outset, Macci stressed wrist-snap to achieve maximum racket-head speed for greater power. So, standing with her feet locked up inside ball hoppers three feet from the fence, she tried, sometimes as many as five hundred times a day, to whack the ball downward and bounce it over the fence.
Even the mino detail of catching the ball Macci threw to her before each serve became purposeful. Capriati gently caught it on her outstretched racket.

“I wanted her to develop soft hands so eventually she could handle the racket like a magician when she’s out of position, like a McEnroe,” he explains.

All the effort and dedication have already paid off. Capriati, now 5’6″ and a solid 125 pounds, has belted serves timed at ninety-seven miles per hour. Braden praised her serving technique as the best he’d ever seen in a girl her age when she was twelve.
What’s more, Macci vastly improved her volley, gave her a topspin forehand, and positioned her more offensively nearer the baseline so her superb ground strokes could better attack the ball on the rise.
Macci’s devotion and affectionfor her shined as brightly as his expertise. Besides an estimated two thousand hours of on-court coaching, Macci, thirty-five, baby-sat for her and her younger brother and took them out for dinner and the movies. He also wrote her scores of motivational letters before the Capriatis moved to Grenelefe from Lauderhill, when her parents droved her two hundred miles each way every weekend for lessons. Capriati appreciated all of it. In a touching note now framed in Macci’s office, she wrote:

“Dou you know something, I really like my service, it’s really gotten better. I can’t wait to come here again. It’s so fun. You’re one cool dude, awesome and great. See ya soon! Love, Jen.”

The love affair was mutual – and her departure last July traumatic. Macci would confide that it left him feeling “like I know what it’s like to have a daughter who’s died.” Eight months later, the gratifying result of their fruitful relationship was her incredible professional debut at the $350,000 Virginia Slims of Florida. There, still only thirteen, she knocked off players world-ranked at numbers 110, 34, 19, 16 and 10 (Helena Sukova) and forced number 3 Gabriela Sabatini to play “my best tennis” before yielding only 6-4 7-5 in the final.

Capriati has even bigger fish to fry, though – namely, the current queen of tennis.

“Every time we played a match, the whole focus would be to prepare her to play Graf”, recalls Macci. “I always hit the inside-out forehand and the heavy slice backhand crosscourt. I had her competing with the best sixteen-and-eighteen-year-old boys in the world all the time. I have no doubt I did all the right things to prepare her.”

Macci is convinced that Capriati’s style will match up quite effectively against the West German superstar.

“Why? Because Jennifer’s best shot is her backhand down the line, and Jennifer can keep the exchanges even or stay in control – whereas when Graf plays other people, she definitely is controlling the show.”

Could amazing Jennifer beat Steffi this year?

“No doubt, in my mind. She has a very legitimate chance,” predicts Macci. “Once thing I’ve always liked about Jennifer is that she has respect for opponents, but she has no fear of anyone.”