From Monica Seles autobiography, Getting a grip:
Key Biscayne, Florida. A tropical island paradise of stunning beaches and the longtime venue for the annual Miami Masters. A prestigious and glamorous event, it is often referred to as the “Fifth Grand Slam” and is a mandatory stop on the WTA schedule. In 2000 it was renamed the Ericsson Open but for years it had been called the Lipton Championships and it had always held a special place in my heart. When I was a gangly sixteen-year-old with stick legs and an incurable case of the giggles, I won my first Tier I title on that hard court. But that was a decade ago and it felt like I’d live a lifetime since then. A month had passed since my Oklahoma revelation and I’d been a “good girl” in my eating and working-out habits – meticulously recording every bite of food and form of exercise in my journal – and I had high hopes for a solid performance in the tournament.
The first few matches went by quickly. I faced Anna Kournikova in the fourth round and she pushed me to three sets. I’d lost to her at the same tournament in 1998 and didn’t want to do it again. […]
Anna wasn’t just a good tennis player, she was also smart. she had blasted open the financially lucrative door by making tennis sexy, and dozen of girls followed in hot pursuit. Suddenly players were showing up for matches with flawlessly applied makeup and carefully coordinated outfits that flashed as much skin as possible. While I’d been away from tennis in the mid-1990s, it had turned into a speed game and I was still trying to catch up to it. There was no way I had the time or energy to bother with applying lip gloss and smudge- proof liquid eyeliner before a match. The tour was going in a completely new direction and i was firmly entrenched in the old school. Not that I wouldn’t have loved to walk onto center court for a hitting session feeling confident in a skimpy outfit and smiling flirtatiously at the guys in the crowd, but my head and body were in no condition to do so. That tracksuit was staying on during my warmups, thank you very much.[…]
Anna, whose reputation as an “overrated” player is unfair – she’s beaten Hingis, Graf, and Davenport, was a strong top-ten player for years, and dominated the doubles world – had beaten me in Miami two years earlier, so I wasn’t taking anything for granted. I took the first set 6-1 but stuggled in the second. It was the first set I’d lost at that tournament. I shook it off and was relieved to take the third 6-0. In the quarterfinals I beat Amy Frazier, a flat-hitter who excelled on hard courts, but the victory carried a hefty price. During the second set I lunged to reach the ball and sprained my ankle. The pain shot up my leg and I immediately knew what I’d done. Pushing far out of my comfort zone, I ignored the pain to close the match. The moment I got to the locker room I wrapped my ankle and began to mentally prepare myself for playing Martina Hingis in the semis the following day. It wouldn’t be pretty. Even on my best days, Hingis could beat me – she’d done it just two weeks earlier at Indian Wells – and I certainly wasn’t feeling at the top of my game when I woke up the next morning with my ankle throbbing. I shouldn’t have been playing, but I didn’t want to pull out. Sponsors were depending on me, fans were excited about the match-up, and major money is lost when a televised match is canceled at the last moment. My people-pleasing personality and my donkeylike stubborness kicked into overdrive. It was a mistake.
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
With Capriati gone, the women’s field at Lipton lacked some sparkle. Evert was retired, Graf was still injured, and Navratilova wasn’t dragging her thirty-three-year-old knees onto a hard court until it was time to prepare for the US Open.
That left Gabriela Sabatini and Monica Seles as the only two name players in the field. Except that Sabatini didn’t last much longer that Capriati. She was swept out of the quartefinals by Conchita Martinez, an eighteen-year-old Spaniard who was still virtual unknown even though she had finished 1989 ranked seventh in the world.
Sabatini and Martinez had a number of things in common. Both were, as Navratilova put it, “huge”. Sabatini who had first attracted attention as a petite, dark-haired fourteen-year-old, had gown like the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. She still had stunning face, but she also had shoulders that would have made most football linebackers envious. She was five feet ten and weighed at least 145 (although the player guide listed her at 130).
Her walk, which reminded some people of that of Jim Brown, the great running back, was best described by Ted Tinling as “a provocative lurch. Seeing her approach,” he added, “one might be well advised to feel a fair amount of apprehension.” Martinez was almost as big as Sabatini but with none of her beauty. Both were belters, backcourters who used their power to slug opponents into submission. Two months shy of twenty, Sabatini was already viewed by some as a has-been. Or never-was. She had never really lived up to the potential she had flashed in 1985, when she reached the French Open semifinals at age fifteen. Her latin beauty and a superb marketing job by ProServ had made her quite rich, but she had never won a Grand Slam title. Graf, her contemporary, had won nine -and had beaten her eighteen times in twenty-one matches. The word among the players was that Sabatini had the game to be a great player, but not the mind.
Sabatini was not very verbal. If she won a match she would invariably say,
“I am feeling good mentally and physically. I was fighting to win. I was concentrated.”
If she lost, just as invariably the speech would go like this:
“Physically I am okay, but mentally I am not. I was fighting, but I was not concentrated.”
Her concentrated line came up so often that the question on the tour, when Sabatini played, became “Is Gaby orange juice [concentrated today]?”
Almost evey player on tour speaks some English, but some are better than others. Becker is virtually fluent in English and Graf is almost as good. Every Swede since Bjorn Borg has spoken good English. Sabatini had never been comfortable speaking English. But, according to Spanish-speaking players and journalists, she wasn’t much more comfortable in Spanish.
“Sometimes when I see her on TV, back home, I feel sorry for her,” said Alberto Mancini, also Argentine. “She really doesn’t have very much to say.”
Against Martinez, Sabatini wasn’t orange juice. She lost in straight sets. That left the tournament in Seles’ hands.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Seles came into the Lipton with a 1990 record of 2-3. The sophomore-slump whispers had already started.
What people didn’t know was that Seles had been distracted by her mother’s health. During the tournament in Boca, Esther Seles had undergone a hysterectomy. Monica had never had to deal with a serious illness in her family and, by her own admission, was a wreck.
“I mean, I knew she would be okay and all, but it was major surgery and she was in the hospital,” she said. “I really couldn’t keep my mind on tennis.”
Seles lost to Laura Gildemeister at Boca but was able to slip away relatively unnoticed because of Capriati. Now, with her mother out of the hospital and back at courtside, Seles was starting to blast the ball again. At the Lipton, she whipped Judith Wiesner in the final.
“I’m just happy to feel comfortable on the court again,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who I beat. I’ll have plenty of chances to play Steffi and Martina. I don’t even know if I’m ready to beat them yet.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Miami Open. Over the past three decades, the tournament has grown into one of the biggest tournaments of the season, but the beginnings were quite chaotic. Let’s have a look at the early days of the Miami Open (then called the Lipton Open):
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
The second meeting of the tennis world takes place each year on the site of a former garbage dump. The formal title of the tournament held where Floridians once dumped their trash is the Lipton International Players championship. To everyone in tennis it is just the Lipton.
The Lipton is the creation of Butch Buchholz, a former pro who, after his playing days, became executive director of the ATP. Buchholz had always dreamed of starting a tournament – modeled after the Grand Slams – that would be the players’ favorite tournament of the year.
“I felt, having been a player myself, that I could put together an event that the players would enjoy, want to take part in, and look forward to,”
said Buchholz, a friendly, outgoing man of fifty, whose younger brother Cliff also played professionally.
“Back in 1961, a year after I had turned pro, open tennis missed being passed in the ITF by five votes That meant, as it turned out, that we had to wait seven more years before we could play in the Grand Slams again. We used to sit on the buses, back in the sixties, and talk about the day we would run ou own tournament. I never forgot that.”
While he was with the ATP, Buchholz got the Men’s Tennis Council to agree to clear two weeks on the calendar if he could put together the sponsorship of the tournament. In all, it took him three years to put the pieces together. In order to hold the tournament in 1985, Buchholz had to have his site and sponsorship in place by March 1, 1984. He signed the final two contracts on February 29, 1984. “Thank God for leap year,” he said, laughing.
From the beginning, the tournament had excellent fields. It was sort of a mini-Grand Slam, with 128 player draws in singles, the men playing best-of-five sets But in spite of Philippe Chatrier‘s fears that Buchholz might attempt to usurp Australia’s role as the traditional fourth Grand Slam, Buchholz never saw it that way.
“I’d like us to be right below the Grand Slams,” he said. “We aren’t going to be a Grand Slam, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. The problem we have, the problem we’ve always had, is establishing a place to play this tournament, one that we’ll be in for the next fifty years. You can’t build tradition without that.”
In three years, the Lipton was played in three different Florida cities. Buchholz agreed to move it to Key Biscayne in 1987, because he decided that going to a place whee there was nothing that trying to be part of a resort. At the resorts where the tournament had been played – Delray Beach, Boca West – the residents had complained that the influx of players, fans, and tourists for two weeks a year was a hassle and a nuisance. Why not go, Buchholz reasoned, someplace where there were no residents to be hassled?
“I can remember driving across the bridge from Miami to Key Biscayne and looking at the dump that was there,” he said. “I thought, This is the place.”
Only it wasn’t that simple. While Buchholz was putting up a temporary stadium in 1987, environmentalists were objecting to his plans to build a permanent one. Where Buchholz saw a garbage dump, they saw park land. Where Buchholz saw the opportunity to build his tournament, they saw more unneeded development. And so, the battle was on.
Three years later, it was still on. On the first morning of the 1990 tournament, Buchholz sat at breakfast with an exasperated look on his face.
“It just won’t go away,” he said. “Right now, if I were a betting man I would say we won’t be here in two years, perhaps not even next year. We’re talking to other people very aggressively now about moving.”
Specifically, Buchholz was talking to Scottsdale, Arizona, about taking the tournament there. He really didn’t want to move, but felt he might have to.
“Until we get established somewhere and build a permanent stadium, we’re nothing more than just another tour stop with a lot of prize money. That isn’t what I want.”
The tournament had already undergone several changes amid all the site problems. The men had been complaining about playing best-of-five matches in the Florida heat. As a result, the draw for both men and women had been cut to ninety-six, meaning the top thirty-two players drew first-round byes. The only match in the tournament that would be best of five would be the final. All of that meant a lot less work for the men. Of course, as the work went down, the prize money had gone up.
The tournament had lost $726,000 in 1989, not bad considering all the site problems and growing pains any new event must experience. But with the economic recession becoming more and more of a factor in tennis, Buchholz was looking at more and more headaches. Fortunately, his title sponsor, Lipton, was locked into a thirty-year deal through the year 2018. […]
The Lipton has always had strong fields – even though it does not pay guarantees.
“I told the Lipton people right from the start that guarantees are a cancer,” Buchholz said. “We’re all getting to be like the baseball owners. We push salaries higher and higher and the players have less and less reason to perform. If we failed, we failed, but we weren’t going to pay guarantees.”
The players came anyway because of the unique nature of the tournament, because the prize money was high, and because of corporate tie-ins. The women got their big names through to the final: Chris Evert, for years a Lipton spokeswoman, played in the first five finals: Steffi Graf, an adidas client just as the Lipton was, won the tournament twice.
But strange things always seemed to happen to the men. Tim Mayotte was the first winner of the tournament, in 1985, his first tournament victory ever. His victim in the final? McEnroe? Connors? Lendl? Wilander? Edberg? Ty Scott Davis.
In 1986, Connors and Lendl met in one semifinal, but the match ended when Connors walked off the court after a raging argument with chair umpire Jeremy Shales. He was suspended from the tour for ten weeks. Lendl then lost the final to Miloslav Mecir in straight sets.
In 1989, Thomas Muster, a rising star, reached the final with a dramatic five-set victory over Yannick Noah. En route back to the hotel on the Key Biscayne causeway, Muster’s car was struck by a drunk driver. His knee was shattered. He needed major surgery and didn’t play tennis for almost six months. Needless to say, there was no men’s final.
Maybe the garbage dump was haunted. Thee were stories that it once was an Indian burial ground.
By Bruce Schoenfeld, Tennis Magazine (November/December 2004)
At 28, Jennifer Capriati knows her days are numbered. Following a dramatic but disappointing run to the US Open semifinals, her hopes of another major victory now rest on the 2005 Australian Open.
Jennifer Capriati had been crying. Her red-rimmed eyes gave her away as she stepped into the interview room in Arthur Ashe stadium after her semifinal loss to Elena Dementieva at the US Open. Usually so calm, so cautious, so media-trained, she couldn’t help but offer a glimpse into her soul.
Who could blame her? It was all so unfair. She’d fought so hard against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, doing what she had to do to win, only to have it undermined by that silly controversy about the umpire’s overrule. For two days, it was all she saw on television, the ball landing near the line and Serena striding toward the chair. Didn’t they have anything else to talk about? Lying in bed at night, she replayed the point over and over, like a bad song she couldn’t get out of her head. Then, against Dementieva, she had found herself a game away from finally reaching a US Open final after all these years. And wouldn’t you know it? The wind was swirling, the sun was in her eyes, and suddenly she was out of the Open again, facing a press conference like so many others.
She’d squandered her fist opportunity, in 1991, as a 15-year-old, losing a memorable semifinal match to Monica Seles in a third-set tiebreaker that would haunt Capriati for years. A decade later, in 2001, she reached another semifinal, this time losing to Venus Williams in straight sets. And then last year she’d served for the match in the semis against Justine Henin-Hardenne but couldn’t close it out. This year’s semifinal against Dementieva, who was floating seves of 60 mph and slower across the net, presented her best chance, and possibly her last.
“I was just thinking, Play the wind the best you can,” she murmured. “I guess I waited for her maybe to make a few more errors. I mean, I can’t really…” She trailed off. “I don’t know.”
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.”
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.