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.”

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 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.

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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.”

Jennifer Capriati, Boca Raton 1990

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!”

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Capriati and Sabatini, Boca Raton 1990

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.

Monica Seles, Australian Open 1991

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.