Capriati wants more
New coach brings a new perspective
By Bud Collins, Globe Columnist | May 14, 2004
ROME -- Half a lifetime ago, the eighth-grader from Florida named Jennifer made sneakered footprints in the caffe latte-hued dirt of Il Foro Italico, and began chasing the title that meant so much to her father, Stefano Capriati. Papa, an immigrant from Italy, had put a tennis racket in his child's right hand, and dreamed of Jenny winning the Italian Open.
It was 1990. She was a child all right, 14, but a kid with blacksmithian verve in her blasts from the backcourt, and a very combative heart. She has come no closer to this title than the semifinals two years ago, losing to the champ (and current favorite) Serena Williams. However, there's no doubt Capriati's headed for the International Tennis Hall of Fame one day, riding three majors (two Australian, one French) plus an Olympic gold in 1992, and 10 other titles.
"I know I've had a great career up to now -- but I want more," she is saying, looking ready for more as well as relaxed, fit, and happy.
There were times, of course, when none of those adjectives fit. Watching her grow up so publicly, through brightness and darkness, we despaired at her social stumbles, the hapless comebacks, thrilled at her triumphs, and were uplifted by her fighting resurgence.
Fourteen years on the lonely stage of tennis is a victory in itself.
"I had no clue what was in store for me the first time I played here. It was fun. My Italian relatives were here. I can't remember who I played."
Someone probably not known beyond her own parents, a Czech named Leona Laskova. A quick win, 6-0, 6-3.
But yesterday, the opposition was stiffer, No. 15 in the universe, Argentine Paola Suarez, and something different was going on with No. 9 Capriati. As she smacked a last forehand that Suarez found too hot to handle, a man in the eighth row of the venerable marble amphitheater whistled shrilly, stood, bowed, and waved his white cap at her.
She responded with a merry smile. He, the old Swiss player Heinz Gunthardt, is, for the moment anyway, standing in for Papa Capriati as Jennifer's coach. A wise move, in my view. Gunthardt, who, as you may recall, coached a pretty fair player named Steffi Graf for nine years up to her 1999 retirement, now earns his bread principally as a TV commentator.
"This is not a separation from my family," says Capriati, who -- with some new tactics -- bounded impressively into the quarterfinals for the fifth time, 6-2, 6-2. "There have been a lot of matches where I've just been so close . . ."
Last September's US Open semifinal came up, painfully: 10 times Capriati was 2 points from defeating Justine Henin-Hardenne, the champion-to-be.
Page 2 of 2 -- "What is missing? What do I need to help me get over that? If someone from the outside can come in and see things in a different way, in a perspective, to give you more confidence. It's hard to see some things when you're close with your family, or to listen because there's no separation.
"My dad, who didn't come here, will always be in the picture, to give me the support and love that I need. Heinz just adds an extra dimension, and he was a player. That makes him more understanding of what's going on out there."
Gunthardt, 45, a family man with three youngsters, says, "Jennifer is obviously an exceptional player. She just needs to follow her good instincts, what got her to the highest level [six times in the top 10] and remember not to step back. I can point out a few things but she's an exceptional product, and that's the only kind of player I want to work with."
Their initial collaboration was a semifinal finish last week at the German Open, losing to the champ, Amelie Mauresmo. Prior to that, her season was mediocre, 4-4 in matches.
Translation for following good instincts: Follow those bruising groundies to the net to shorten points with volleys. Volleying exceptionally yesterday, varying her shotmaking smartly, Capriati was a commanding presence. I think Gunthardt can fix her wayward serve, too. Today the test is tenacious Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi, probably followed by a shot at Serena in the semis.
The situation could have gotten out of hand as Suarez pinned Capriati at 0-40 in the opening game of the second set. Capriati, dealing with four break points, rescued herself brilliantly: a startling serve-and-volley, a backhand drop shot, an ace, and a service winner, closing the 10-point game with a forehand winner and another service winner.
"I have to go forward," Capriati says. "I'm working on it so that I don't have to think about it, that it becomes automatic.
"I've have some good years here, and some bad ones, not getting out of the first round. But you never know. In 2001, I lost at the start to Rita Kuti Kis [another household name -- maybe in her own household], but the next tournament, I won the French.
"I think the most fun I had here was beating an Italian, Sandra Cecchini [1992, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4)]. The crowd was wild for her. It was electric."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.