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.

The Rocket Rod Laver

Rod Laver

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy, published in 1990:

Rodney George Laver was the most astounding player I ever saw, and may have been the greatest ever. His record is without parallel. Consider what that record might have been but for his exclusion from 21 Grand Slam tournaments when he was, presumably, at his physical peak, between the ages of 24 and 29. Had professionals been eligible for those events, Lew Hoad might have had the better of laver for a year or so and Ken Rosewall would always have been worth an even-money bet. But one has to believe that from 1963 to 1967 Laver would have collected another bunch of major championships and perhaps a third Grand Slam. Laver overlapped and dominated two Grand Slam eras separated by seven years. He did so because he had it all. Because he was adventurer and artist in one. Because he could raise his game to any level demanded of it.

Laver was only 5ft 8 1/2in tall and usually weighed around 10st 71lb. But he had gigantic left arm and his speed and agility were breathtaking. The circumference of his left forearm was 12in and the wrist measured 7in. The strength of that wrist and forearm gave him blazing power without loss of control, even when he was on the run at full stretch. The combination of speed and strength, especially wrist-strength, enabled him to hit ferocious winners when way out of court – often when almost under the noses of the front ow of spectators. And he was a bow-legged, beautifully balanced, and as quick as a cat. He had some glorious matches with Rosewall – and with Tom Okker, who could match Laver’s speed and panache but was second-best in terms of strength and technical versatility. Laver also had the eyes of a hawk and fast anticipation and reactions. Like Budge, he was feckle-faced and had copper-coloured hair. Another distinguished feature was a long nose that, in spite of the kink in it, gave a false impression of hauteur. For much of his career Laver was confessedly shy and self-conscious, but there was no ‘side’ to him. He was easy going – except on court.

Marty Riessen once summed up Laver admirably: “To look at him walking around, you wouldn’t think he was world champion. He doesn’t stand out. His stature isn’t something you expect, like a Gonzales or a Hoad. Off the court, his personality seems almost retiring. But it’s as if he goes into a telephone booth and changes. On court he’s aggressive. Such a big change of personality – when a lot of players play the same as they act. What impresses me is his quickness. Speed enables him to recover when he’s in trouble. And the thing I learned from playing Laver is how consistent one can be with power. It’s amazing how he can keep hitting with such accuracy. He combines everything. There are a lot of good competitors. But he’s fantastic.”

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Evonne Goolagong

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy

Evonne Fay Goolagong had two unusual names. The Evonne happened because her mother wanted something different, instead of the familiar French spelling. Goolagong means ‘tall trees by still water”. Her father was an itinerant sheep shearer and farm hand and she was one of eight children brought up in the bush: the rolling wheat and sheep country noth of the Murrumbidgee River. They lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of Barellan and were the only Aboriginal family in the vicinity. Fishing for yabbies, small crayfish, was fun for the children? But there was no money to throw around and they were a long way frol the tennis scene. They were a long way from most scenes.
It might have stayed that way – goodness knows what Goolagong would have been doing now – but for a local initiative that produced the War Memorial Club, equipped with four tennis courts. That happened in 1956 when Goolagong was five years old. The courts could not have been nearer home and within a couple of years she was acquiring a taste for the game.

Destinity took her by the hand again when London-born Vic Edwards, who ran a huge coaching operation from Sydney, was induced to include Barellan in his network of week-long tennis schools held in bush towns while children were on holiday. The two coaches assigned to Barellan insisted that Edwards himself should have a look at Goolagong and he flew hundreds of miles to do so. Edwards was impressed by her movements, reactions, and ball sense – that innate judgement of a ball’s speed and bounce on which timing depends.
She was nine then. Two years later she made her first trip to Sydney for intensive coaching and at 13, in 1965, she moved in with the Edwards family. Edwards became her legal guardian, assuming responsibility for her education on and off court. But Goolagaong retained close ties with her own family and with Barellan, where local residents dipped into their pockets to subsidize her career. She was already winning age-group championships and in 1970 she became Australian junior champion without losing a set and went on her first overseas tour. Edwards, a hearty bear of a man, was to travel with her as coach, manager, and surrogate father until 1976, by which time Goolagong had matured and married and was assuming an independent life style.

Edwards thought she could win Wimbledon in 1974. But in 1971 Goolagong surprised him. She surprised everybody. In January she led Margaret Court 5-2 in the third set of the Australian final but was afflicted by cramp and could no longer do the running Court demanded of her. A month later she beat Court in the Victorian final. Over to Europe, where Goolagong won the French championship at the first attempt without conceding a set and then beat Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court in consecutive matches to become Wimbledon champion. At the age of 19, on her second trip overseas, the brown-skinned lass from a tin shack in a bush town had won two of the game’s four major titles.

Evonne Goolagong, Wimbledon 1971

Goolagong did not find it easy to build on that, partly because her toughest rivals had worked out how to play her, partly because her game veered wildly between splendour and mediocrity, and partly because she was not greedy for glory. She lost 11 of the 18 Grand Slam finals she played. That was hardly surprising, because the players who beat her were King (four times), Court and Chris Evert (three each), and Virginia Wade. At the same time one could not resist a frivolous line of logic: Goolagong loved playing tennis, had to win in order to enjoy another match in the next round, but was deprived of that incentive whenever she reached a final. She was a determined competitor but tended to value the game more than the prize. She was not in the same class as King, Court and Evert when it came to a concentrated, total commitment to success.

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Stefan Edberg

By Bill Simons, Inside Tennis, July 2004

From Laver and the good ol’ Aussies to Sampras and Henman, tennis has been blessed with many a fine sporting lad. But none had better timing than Stefan Edberg. In fact, the Swede emerged just as the scowl-and-stare era of men’s tennis was raging. At a mean and macho time when implosions were expected and ferocity was a given, elegant Edberg entered the game with a minimalist, (be joyous within and walk lightly upon this Earth) sensibility.

Never mind that Connors, McEnroe, and Lendl were setting a mean-spirited snipe-and-run tone. Never mind that critics claimed tennis was free-falling out of control and was in danger of becoming a kind of World Wrestling Federation wannabe. As it happened — don’t worry, be happy — Edberg was there to save the day.

After all, no matter how bad his luck, no matter how outrageous the call, the Gentleman Champion never complained. For Stefan, a raised eyebrow was the equivalent of a full-blown Connors convulsion. A simple Edbergian inquiry to the chair umpire — “Are you sure?” — was his version of a McEnroe meltdown. There was no Becker-like gamesmanship, or anything like Lendl’s intimidating, icy stare.

It’s little wonder that Becker once told him, “You’re the greatest tennis ambassador I’ve ever known.”

Commentator Mary Carillo raved, “I’m such a big Eddy fan. He’s been the classiest, most elegant No. 1 that men’s tennis has had. He leads a very balanced life. He understands fame, fortune and celebrity better than just about any superstar I’ve ever met.” In a “narcissists gone wild” world, where a sense of entitlement was a given and it was just presumed that he who had the biggest toys (or private jets) won, Edberg was down to earth and solid — a freak of nature who was so normal he was abnormal.

Not surprisingly, the ATP honored him with its Sportsmanship Award five times and then threw in the towel and just named the award after him.
Edberg’s appeal was the sheer beauty of his strokes and the rhythmic fluidity of his movement. Sure, his pushy forehand was a foible never quite fixed, but his looping backhand was a shot apart, and his easy, balletic grace was a sublime delight. He brilliantly executed tennis’ most important and complex sequence, the serve-and-volley, and was a master of the perfectly timed chip-and-charge. Only McEnroe matched his skills at capturing control of the net. Once there, Edberg prowled with razor-sharp reflexes and merciless instinct, dishing out unforgiving volleys, particularly on the backhand side.

There was always something different about Stefan. He not only was a bizarre kind of throwback: a thrifty, conservative introvert in a self-indulgent, me-first modernist universe, on-court he was a true mutant: a serve-and-volleyer who emerged from Sweden’s homogeneous, stuck-at-the-baseline, gene pool.
Despite his mild appearance, Edberg was a fighter. His coach, Tony Pickard, famously informed us that he had “fire in his belly.” Plus, he was a true triple threat. He won six Grand Slam singles titles (two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and two Australians), 41 singles crowns, was ranked No. 1 in ‘90 and ‘91, was a top-five player for nine years in a row, he won 18 doubles titles and, after McEnroe, was the most heroic Davis Cup player of our era, a patriot who willed little Sweden to four Davis Cup titles. He was the only player ever to have won the Junior Grand Slam, won the ‘84 Olympics and played in 53 straight Grand Slam tournaments.

He knew how to come from behind, as he did when he was down 3-1 to Becker in the fifth set of their ‘90 Wimbledon final. He could outlast his foes, like when he beat Michael Chang in five hours, 26 minutes in ‘92 in the longest U.S. Open match ever. Or he could dominate. Just ask Jim Courier, whom he crushed 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 in the most inspired match of his career — the ‘91 U.S. Open final.

It was easy to dismiss Edberg as a too-good-to-be-true, squeaky-clean Eagle Scout who was not exactly the life of the party. When the London tabloids set out to discover his dirty laundry, they found out only that Edberg washed his own clothes. For years, his wife cut his hair. Still, his career has been filled with a mix of sad or bizarre happenings. When he played the U.S. Open Juniors, one of his kick serves smashed a linesman in the groin. The linesman then toppled over, hit his head on the court and suffered a fatal heart attack. In mid-career Edberg courted and, in ‘92, married Mats Wilander’s former girlfriend, Annette Olson. Throughout his years his Nordic appeal didn’t go unnoticed. “What a body,” said one Wimbledon observer, “he’s so cute, and those legs…”

Early in his career, when things got rough, he would drop his shoulders and mope, projecting “woe-is-me” body language. And, of course, even the mighty Edberg had his share of setbacks. He failed miserably on clay at the French Open, just once reaching beyond the fourth round. And he failed to convert his golden opportunity when he was up, two sets to one, to Michael Chang in the ‘89 final. (Later he would wryly quip that Michael won because he “had God on his side.”) Then there was the highly forgettable, mercifully brief “Norwegian Joke” phase of his career when, with a series of insufferable quips, Edberg tried to convince journalists that he was some kind of wild and crazy guy. Not!

Still, he was the co-ringleader of the Great Potty Protest of ‘87, when two of the game’s most mild-mannered, compliant soldiers — Edberg and Wilander — stepped way out of character and hid in the U.S. Open locker room for 15 minutes before their semi to protest that they were being forced to play at 11 a.m. in a virtually vacant stadium.

The incident was so remarkable because, as McEnroe said,

“He was seemingly immune to getting upset. I never heard anyone say anything bad about him and he never said anything bad about anyone.”

Sampras suggested, “When parents are looking for a role model, Stefan is the player to look to.”

A man of grace, blessed with quick stutter steps, deep-angled volleys and flowing backhand — now has seamlessly embraced all-court domesticity with a vengeance. Happily married and living in rural Sweden near his seaside birthplace, Vastervik, he now rises early to make sure his two kids get to school. He manages his investments and oversees his tennis foundation, which helps Swedish teens excel.

Of course, all this white picket fence/Ozzie and Harriet normalcy is hardly a shock. After all, never has there been a more balanced, “aw-shucks,” tennis champion, and a No.1 who so easily dismissed the siren song of fame and indulgent consumerism than this policeman’s son who played with the blissful ease of a dancer lost in an unending moment.

Photo: Tennis Buzz, Lagardere Trophy 2010

Kei Nishikori

From Nick Bollettieri‘s book, Changing the game:

I have seen thousands of tennis players over the past 60 years and can identify only three who have had the gift of magic hands. I’ve already mentioned two – Xavier Malisse and Marcelo Rios. The third is Kei Nishikori.
I met and started to work with Kei because in the 1980s Arthur Ashe and I traveled to Japan to conduct a clinic for 500 youngsters. While there we toured many of the local tennis facilities. On the day of the clinic the skies opened with torrential rains, forcing us to move indoors. Arthur was panicked – how to deal with so many children at close quarters – but this wasn’t a challenge for me. We found a huge gymnasium and held two clinics, each for one hour with 250 participants. We had two lines running at the same time and each kid got to hit two balls. They all thanked us profusely.

I learned a few things that day about Japanese children. They were very polite, quiet and patient; but they watched our every movement and took in every word I spoke. They were so eager to learn, you could see their excitement as their eyes darted from me to Arthur to the interpreter and back again.

During our visit I was introduced to a kindly gentleman, Mr Morita, whose family was the largest shareholder in the Sony Corporation. He loved tennis and wanted very much for Japan to develop a steady stream of world-class players; His passion for the sport and confidence in me led to a fruitful relationship that continues to this day. At the time, Japan’s most successful male player, Shuzo Matsuoka, was in a class by himself. His highest ranking ever was No.46 in the world, but both Mr Morita and I believed that with focus, determination and funding, more could be achieved.

So Mr Morita dispatched Sato Nakajima to work at IMG academy and act as a liaison for Japanese players. He also began to send youngsters there, all sponsored by Sony. One of those players was 14-year-old Kei Nishikori. Kei, who didn’t speak one word of english at the time and had never eaten american food, housed in an apartment with seven other boys; not surprisingly, he was scared and took some time to feel comfortable. Not on the tennis court, though. I didn’t take me very long to realize that he had talent. He was extremely quick and had those magic hands of a gifted shot maker. Like Agassi and Rios, he possessed innate skills that can’t be taught, but need only to be channeled.

Mr Morita continued to support him. Today, Kei is not only the highest ranked player from Japan on the ATP tour but one of the most celebrated sports stars in Japanese history.
His able team includes IMG agent Olivier van Lindonk, who sees to his schedule and business affairs, and his personal coach, Dante Bottini, who is quiet and unassuming but understands Kei. They relate well to each other. I continue to participate in the role of team advisor.

I was especially pleased to see Michael Chang coming to town to join Kei’s coaching team. THe last time Michael was at the academy was in 1985 when he was 13 years old and training with his coach. Michael was a champion because of his movement, his recovery and his ability to avoid hitting defensive shots, not to mention an indomitable will. On the way to the 1989 French Open singles title, he had an epic match againt Ivan Lendl, overcoming leg cramps, fatigue and dehydration in a remarkable five-set victory.

Michael Chang

I watched Michael working with Kei and quickly identified what his plans were. He realized that magic hands were not enough but would make a big difference in combination with the right leg work. He showed Kei exactly how to load from the ground up which, in turn, got his racquet below the ball. This allowed Kei to aplly more height, depth and spin, especially when he was out of position and behind the baseline. In the past, Kei’s shots would land on the service line and get him in trouble. I applauded Kei’s decision to add Michael Chang to his coaching team, alongside his regular coach.

Can Kei really compete with the best in the world? I know he can! But, he must learn to truly believe in himself – exactly what Michael Chang yelled to him in his first round, five-set match at the 2014 Australian Open – and to know with every fiber of his being that he deserves to be on the court with the big boys. And he must deliver that as a potent message when he competes against top 10 players? I believe he will do it! Mr Morita and I will continue to cheer for Kei.

Photos by Tennis Buzz