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!”
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
Long before she played her first match as a professional, Jennifer Capriati was the hottest thing going in women’s tennis. Labeled a prodigy at the age of nine and, without having hit a ball yet as a pro, a thriving corporation at the age of thirteen, she had already been the subject of lenghty stories in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The National, and the rest of the world would follow shortly. Each would tell essentially the same story:
Capriati was the oldest of Stefano and Denise Capriati’s two children. Stefano was Italian; Denise, American. They had met in Spain; Denise had lounging by the pool when Stefano had popped his head out of the water and asked her to dinner. He was fifty-four, she was thirty-nine. He was dark and stocky, she was blond, petite, and very pretty. He had played soccer, worked in real estate and, for the past ten years, focused much of his life on Jennifer. Denise was a flight attendant. They had moved from Fort Lauderdale, where Jennifer had taken lessons from Chris Evert’s father, at age five, to Saddlebrook, a tennis resort. There, the people who rran the resort, the USTA and anyone else who could get in the door, fought to take credit for Jennifer’s prowess.
Jennifer Capriati wasn’t just another teenager who could stand at the back of the court and bang ground strokes all day. Forst and perhaps foremost, she was American. Born on Long Island, raised in Florida (after a brief interlude in Spain), she was an all-American girl who happened to be very pretty. She had her father’s dark skin and broad shoulders and her mother’s attractive features.
Women’s tennis was desperately in need of American star with sex appeal. Even at thirteen it was apparent Capriati was the answer. Ever since Chris Evert had first flashed across the tennis horizon in 1971 en route to icon status, tennis had been in search of the next Chrissie. Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger had burned out. Pam Shriver never won Grand Slam singles titles. Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini weren’t American. Neither was Monica Seles, even if she had lived in Florida for four years, even if she did speak English with a midwestern accent.
Everyone in tennis has always agreed on the need for American stars. When no American-born male reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament in 1986, near panic set in. That was why Andre Agassi became so rich so fast when he began to win in 1988. He was the American that sponsors, television people, bureaucrats, and fans were starving for.
The situation had never gotten quite that desperate on the women’s side. Evert was still a top-five player right up until she retired, at the 1989 US Open, and Martina Navratilova was accepted as an American by some, if not by all. Starting out 1990, though, the only American-born player in the Top ten was Zina Garrison, who was black. The people who control the money in tennis – corporations – don’t think there is much market for a black player in their sport. As a result, Garrison, the fourth-ranked player in the world, didn’t even have a shoe or clothing contact.
That was where Capriati came in. By age nine, agents and manufacturers were already negotiating with her father. She was wearing Ellesse clothing by the time she was ten. Cino Marchese, the IMG agent who is the majordomo of the Italian Open, remembers having a handshake agreement with Stefano to bring his daughter to the Italian Open when she turned pro. Jennifer was nine when the two men shook hands.
In 1989 Capriati won both the French and US Open junior titles, confirming her status as The Next One. Already, the Women’s Professional Tennis Council was passing what would become known as “Capriati Rules”. The first (Capriati I) stated that a player could not participate in professional events before turning fourteen. The second (Capriati II) amended that to say that a player could play a pro event in the same month that she turned fourteen. Capriati turned fourteen on March 29; Boca began on March 5. What a coincidence! The press release announcing the amendment specifically said that these rule changes were not aimed at Jennifer Capriati. (And Zina Garrison’s lack of a clothing contract had nothing to do with her being black…) […]
Capriati was entered in the tournament as a wild card since she didn’t have any points on the computer yet. Every tennis tournament reserves several places in its draw for wildcards – Boca Raton had two spots saved – in case a big star decides to enter at the last minute or an injured player comes back from an injury or an up-and-coming young player comes along. Wild cards are frequently abused by tournament directors, but in Boca they had been used perfectly. the two wild cards were Capriati and Anke Huber, the fifteen-year-old German who, in Australia, had been dubbed the next Graf.
Huber wasn’t about to get noticed this week, though. It was as if the rest of the tennis world had become invisible; This would turn out ot be a wild and fascinating tournament, but no one would pay attention. Jen-Jen mania was completely out of control. […]
Tuesday, March 6, was the day the hype finally became reality. By this time Capriati had been forced to sneak off to faraway courts in order to practice in private. Evert had gone off to Aspen for the week to leave the stage clean for her protégée. The day was hot and sunny. Capriati-Mary Lou Daniels was the fifth match on the schedule. By noon there was chaos in the press tent because there weren’t enough seats to go round. There was no press section, so seats in the stands had to be found, and there were not very many of them available.
By 3:40 the stands were packed and the crowd was restless. The previous match had been over for twenty minutes but there was no sign of Capriati. Finally, at 3:43, Capriati and Mary Lou Daniels appeared. They walked exactly three feet onto the court and were besieged by photographers. They stopped and posed. And posed. And posed.
Daniels was almost a perfect opening-day opponent for Capriati. She was twenty-eight, married, and had been featured in commercials for Coast soap at one point. She had once been ranked as high as No. 15 on the computer, but that was eight years ago, when she was still fresh-faced Mary Lou Piatek. […]
Seeing her up close for the first time, amny in the crowd were surprised by her side. Still three weeks away from fourteen, Capriati was almost five feet seven and weighed at least 130, perhaps more. None of it was fat, though; she was simply big boned and extremely mature.
“She doesn’t hit the ball like a thirteen-year-old,” Daniels said. “She hits more like Steffi Graf.”
Capriati’s nerves and Daniels’ competence kept the first set close. Capriati lost the first point of her career – history will record that it came at 3:57 pm, when she netted a backhand – but quickly won the first three games. Daniels came back to lead 6-5, but Capriati won the tiebreak 7-1, then won the second set easily, 6-1. It had taken seventy minutes.
Everyone was happy. The crowd knew it had seen the real thing and responded with a standing ovation. Daniels was impressed. “She’s worth all the hype,” she said. Other players who had wandered out to watch were equally impressed. “Gee, I wish I had brought my camera,” Pam Shriver said, watching all the commotion. Stefano was happy, too, accepting congratulations from all sides. John Evert (Chris sister and Capriati’s agent), who from that day forth would be knwon in the media as “Colonel Parker” was thrilled to see that the kid could handle it all.
Even the ravenous media was happy. When Capriati came in to a jammed press conference, someone asked her about what she thought of the whole experience.
“Well, she I think playing my first match was great. But the media is really sort of out of control.”
The rest of the week was all Jen-Jen. In the second round, she recovered from losing the second set 6-0 to Claudia Porwik to win her first three-setter. She upset eighth-seeded Nathalie Tauziat and crushed No. 4 Helena Sukova 6-4 -1 in the quarterfinals. Then she beat Gildemeister in the semis. In five days she had won five matches, beating three top-twenty players along the way. She also played doubles with Billie Jean King, even winning a first round match.
Capriati’s joyride ended in the final, when Sabatini beat her 6-4 7-5. But it didn’t matter. the match was close, the crowd loved the whole thing, and it proved that as good as the kid was, she was human. People were beginning to wonder.
What made it all so appealing was Jen-Jen herself. She was completely thirteen, full of giggles and “I means” and “you knows.”
John Evert had advised the Capriatis not to hire a media trainer, at least for the moment. Evert figured – correctly – that a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old who sounded like a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old would be much more appealing than someone who sounded trained.
Virginia Slims, image conscious to a fault, had kept a media trainer on staff for years. More often than not, this training was beneficial to the players although one could tell from a hundred miles away when a player had just been through the sessions. Seles, for example, never referred to a tournament as just “Washington” or “Houston”; it was always “Virginia Slims of Washington” or “Virginia Slims of Houston.”
For now, Capriati would be allowed to be herself. She mouthed all the appropriate clichés and charmed everyone right out of their socks. When the week was over, there was no doubt that a star had been born and that Jen-Jen mania would continue unabated for quite a while. Bud Collins summed it up best when the tournament was over.
“What was that old broad’s name?” he asked. “Everet? Evette? Played twenty years ago, right?”
In 1990 at the Virginia Slims of Capriati in the year of Jen-Jen I, Chris Evert might as well have played twenty years ago.
From Monica Seles’ autobiography, Getting a grip:
Within the first hour of landing in Melbourne I knew it would be my home away from home. Fantastic people, beautiful weather, and the laid-back energy of the culture calmed my nerves.
I lost only twelve games in the first five rounds and faced a tough battle against Mary Joe Fernandez in the semi. The last two times we’d met on the court I’d beaten her in two sets, but she wasn’t going down easily this time. In the second set my game fell apart and she took it 6-0. Our third set went back nad forth like a seesaw and we played until 9-7.
I was exhausted but I was on my way to the final. Years later Mary Joe would become one of my best friends and I’d dread playing against her. If we’d been friends back then, I don’t know whether I would have been able to summon the gritty focus it takes to win a set that close.
Jana Novotna, a gifted doubles player from the Czech Republic, was waiting to play me in the final. She was five years and had beaten me in two sets at an indoor tournament during my first time as a pro, but I had an advantage now. This was her first Grand Slam singles final and I’d already won in Paris. In a monumental event like a Grand Slam final, if you don’t have confidence, you don’t have anything. I’d already been on the court in a final and prevailed. I knew I could do it.
I was furious with myself when she took the first set 7-5. My mind started to slide down the canyon of negative thoughts, but I stopped it before it was too late. Just play each point – my dad’s words came back to me at full volume. I won the next set 6-3 and, with the momentum on my side, took control of the rhythm and didn’t let up until I won the third set 6-1. I’d done it. I won my second Grand Slam title under the unforgiving Australian sun.
In front of the boisterously supportive local fans and playing on 130-degree hard courts, I proved that I was more than just a clay specialist. I was more than a one-hit wonder, and with that win I was within striking distance of being number one, a position Steffi Graf had held for the past three and a half years. Two months after Australia the points were tallied and I became the top-ranked female player in the world.
From Nick Bollettieri‘s book, Changing the game:
When Mary Pierce first came to the academy in 1988, she was 13 years old and already had a blistering forehand. Her father, Jim Pierce, a belligerent man obsessed with getting his daughter to succeed, felt that the competitive envionment would help her improve more quickly. Although Mary lived in the dorms for some time, Jim continued as her coach.
Determined to maintain his control over Mary and her career, he soon pulled her out of the academy. Mary turned pro two months after her 14th birthday and started to play on the women’s tour. Meanwhile, her father was often abusive, unable to control his temper. He cursed at other players and their parents, and verbally terrorized Mary and her mother, Yannick. It got so bad that he was officially banned from tournaments. In the summer of 1993, Mary finally succeeded in getting a restraining order against her father, but she and her mother traveled with bodyguards for a while.
I know those were traumatic times for Mary, although personally, I have never had difficulties with Jim Pierce. We have always been able to talk to each other, and I credit him with the work ethic he instilled in Mary and for helping her develop the smashing “Bollettieri forehand”. I see him now occasionally, and he has become a gentler man, no longer afflicted by demons.
At the time, however, those demons plagued him and he often acted out in hurtful and damaging ways. With such a difficult background, it is no wonder that Mary was both a fierce competitor and a bundle of terrible insecurity about who she was and what she was capable of. During matches, when things didn’t go well, she often looked to her coaches for help, even though it was against the rules for them to advice to their players. She would also get down on herself, become irritated and tank matches when she an into difficulties with her opponents.
I followed her career from a distance. By the time she was 17, Mary was ranked among the top 15 women players in the world, and I saw that she had great potential to do better. At some point when we ran into each other at a tournament, I mentioned to her that she was always welcome at the Academy to train and feel safe.
Soon after, I received a phone call from her. She asked me to be her coach, and I agreed but I had conditions. I wrote her a note, “Mary, if I am to be your coach, there are two conditions that you must agree to: First, you are out of shape, in fact you are fat! You have to commit to a physical conditioning program that will get you into you top level of fitness. And second, I will stay with you until you not only believe in yourself, but also never need to look over to your support team, raising your hands in frustration and acting like a baby.”
I was deliberately blunt to put her on notice that our work together would not be a walk in the park. After reading the note Mary came to me with tears in her eyes asking why I wrote such hurtful things about her. My answer was very simple “It’s the truth and it’s my way or the highway.” She agreed!
In 1994, our first full year together, Mary improved her ranking from No.12 to No.5 in the world. During the French Open, her road to the finals included beating defending champion Steffi Graf in two sets 6-2 6-2. Unfortunately she ran out of steam against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. That finish set the pattern for the rest of the year; she reached the finals of five tournaments, but won none.[…]
Mary arrived in early December to get ready for the 1995 Australian Open – it would be my first time here, coaching her and Boris Becker.
For the next few weeks Mary trained as if she were preparing for a Navy Seal mission. In addition to her two on-court workouts each day, she also spent two hours in our weight room. Mary continued to work hard over the holidays and her full-time coach Sven Groeneveld and her conditioning coach, José Rincon. But after I returned from a week of skiing in Aspen and met her in Australia for the warm-up tournament, she still hadn’t shed all of her extra body weight.
I confronted her about it and finally got through to her. That night, with a bit of help from Sven and José, Mary located all the junk food she had hidden in her appartment – her favorite indulgence was tiramisu – and threw it out. The next day she arrived for practice with a new attitude, all business and commitment.
Boris lost in the first round and generously told me to stay and take Mary to the championship. She breezed through the first three rounds in straight sets and dispatched Anke Huber, a German player who had given her problems in the past. In the quarterfinals, she faced Natasha Zvereva, a tough player from Belarus. I knew Mary could win, but I had a different problem. I had commited to hosting a Super Bowl tennis clinic in Florida and would miss the semis and finals.
Mary won against Zvereva as expected, and after the match I reminded her that I had to leave for the United States. I knew it would be difficult for both of us. I told her that she was ready – her game was technically close to perfect. The only thing she needed was confidence in herself to deal with adversity on the court, to look deep inside herself, not hope to find answer in the coaches’ box. She didn’t need me or anyone else to win the tournament. We both had tears in ours eyes as we hugged and parted.
Mary’s opponent in the semifinals was the No.3 player in the world, Conchita Martinez. I called Mary during my stopover in Hawaii and gave her the game plan Sven and I had worked out. I made it to bradenton in time to watch the match on television. I was on pins and needles, but I needn’t have been. Mary ruled the court, whipping Conchita 6-3 6-1. After the final point, when she did look over the coaches’ box, her arms were raised in victory and I knew the change had happened. At that moment, Mary came into her own; she finally accepted that she was a winner! I only wished I could have shared that moment with her by being there.
The finals were almost a foregone conclusion. She dominated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-3 6-2 to win the Australian Open. I was in heaven. When she called me, I was momentarily at a loss for words I was so happy. Then I congratulated her on her victory and told her, “Remember what I put in my note to you? I told you that I’d stay with you until you can stand on your own two feet. Today, you showed not only yourself, but the entire world that Mary Pierce is a winner. You were perfect and now you’re ready to rely on your full-time coach, Sven Groenveld.” Then I added, “Go out, get the biggest tiramisu you can find and eat it all by yourself. You have earned it.”
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.
By Michael Janofsky “New York Times” November 14, 1989
For three days last week, Steffi Graf tried to telephone a friend in West Berlin, only to be greeted by his answering machine and its ebullient message.
“Sorry, I’m not here,” she recalled his voice saying. “I’m out partying and won’t be home for a while.”
Graf laughed in the retelling and sounded almost jealous, as if there could be better places to be this week and more important things to do than playing for the Virginia Slims championship at Madison Square Garden. Partying with her friend at the Berlin Wall, for example.
“For everyone, I think it’s something to do,” she said almost wistfully. “I would love to have done it, just to be a part of the moment.”
Like millions of other people around the world, Graf has watched the recent changes in East Germany with joyous and stunned amazement. The best player in women’s tennis and the No. 1 seeded player in the Slims Championships, she has found the scenes of East Berliners exploring West Berlin that much more poignant because of her connection to fans in both republics.
More than a third of the mail to her home in Bruehl, West Germany, she said, is from East Germans. Once in a while the message inside has been more pointed, reflecting the harsher realities of life where many restrictions apply.
One letter, she remembered, came from a teen-age player who wanted badly to compete in West Germany.
“She asked me if I could help her in any way,” Graf said. “She also said that once in her life, she would like to be able to see me play somewhere.”
East Germany’s absence from international tennis may account, to some degree, for Graf’s wide popularity there. Unlike the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries that routinely produce world-class players, East Germany has chosen not to compete at an elite level. None of the major professional tours this year included an East German player. Nor did one compete in the Seoul Olympics last year, when tennis returned as a medal sport for the first time in 64 years.
Graf recalled one player, an Eastern European champion of another generation, who retired in frustration, never having tested his skills against players of non-Warsaw pact nations.
“Playing 20 years in the same country,” Graf said, “he had no more motivation.”
“He was my boyfriend in 1971 or ’72,” she said. “He beat all the junior players in Czechoslovakia. He beat people who beat Bjorn Borg at that age. But he never had a chance to play on the outside. They were not allowed, period.”
Navratilova, who is seeded second this week, said she expected that to change, and not just because of the sudden political developmentsin East Germany. She predicted that because tennis has won a permanent place on the Olympic program, East Germans sports officials would begin to emphasize it and develop top players as they have in other sports.
“It’s that simple,” she said. “I think the world will now see a wave of East German tennis players.”
Navratilova described herself as “euphoric” over recent events in Eastern Europe, saying, “the winds of change are here.” They have blown less vigorously in other Eastern European countries but still with enough power to create hope.
Manuela Maleeva, a 21-year-old Bulgarian who is seeded eighth in the championships, said that the developments in East Germany were only slightly more exhilarating than changes in her own country, where Todor I. Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s president since 1954, resigned on Friday.
“That was unexpected,” Maleeva said, adding that she could not be sure how it would affect Bulgarian citizens.
“I think it will take quite a few years until things really start to change,” she said. “But I’m happy something is moving. When the same person is in power for 35 years, it felt like things would stay the same forever.”
Like Graf and Navratilova, she has watched in amazement as East and West Berliners celebrated at the Wall.
“They were all so happy,” she said. “it was unthinkable even a month ago that someone could walk on the Berlin Wall, and now they’re destroying it. It’s really something.”