For Capriati, the Dial Is Stuck on the Tennis Channel
By KAREN CROUSE
Published: May 25, 2006
The black Labrador and the mixed breed pawed the sliding glass door, trying to lure Jennifer Capriati
outside. Her dogs, Happy and Aries, are like some tennis aficionados — they want Capriati to play.
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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Injuries have kept Jennifer Capriati, 30, off the WTA Tour for 18 months. "I wake up every day, and my life has totally changed," she said.
Denis Paquin/Associated Press
The 18-year-old Capriati during a third-round match against Brenda Schultz at Wimbledon in 1993.
Capriati let the dogs inside and scratched their ears. That much she can do without pain. Dressed in dark blue shorts, a powder blue top and sneakers, and with her brunet hair tied in a ponytail, Capriati looked as if she could be headed for the tennis court or the weight room.
In fact, the only thing Capriati would be lifting on this May day were forkfuls of Cobb salad at the Polo Lounge at the Saddlebrook Resort, outside Tampa, Fla., where she lives.
It is difficult for Capriati, who was once ranked No. 1 in the world, to think about playing tennis when she cannot throw a ball for her dogs to fetch. She has been off the WTA Tour for 18 months because of pain in her right shoulder that two operations have failed to alleviate. When the French Open begins in Paris next week, Capriati, the 2001 champion, will be at home in Florida in front of the television.
"I wake up every day, and my life has totally changed," she said.
Capriati, who burst into the public consciousness as a gum-chomping, ground-stroke-blasting prodigy, is in the throes of a professional athlete's equivalent of a midlife crisis. She has been immobilized by a landslide of questions triggered by her injury. Even if she is able to return to competitive tennis, should she? And if she is not a tennis player, who is she?
"You don't know what's your driving force," Capriati said. "Is it sponsors, pressure, money, self-worth? Or is it that you really love the game so much that you can't be away from it?"
Capriati, 30, who has won $10 million in prize money and three Grand Slam titles, had her shoulder operated on in January of last year and again in June. Instead of traveling the tennis circuit, she is making the rounds of doctors.
"I feel stuck," she said.
Capriati was sitting in her living room, which was uncluttered by rackets or trophies. On one table, a cluster of framed family photos had one of the few reminders of the life she has put on ice. It is a picture of a much younger Capriati stretching to hit a forehand on the run.
"Sometimes I feel like this is another life already," she said.
Capriati has always worn the two sides of her personality like a reversible jacket. She can be vulnerable one moment, steely the next, and she revealed both during a candid two-hour conversation, her voice cracking once, when she talked about the encouragement she receives from fans.
She said she was constantly being asked when she would resume her tennis career. "Basically, I'm retired until I can play," Capriati said. "That's the easiest way to put it."
Her life is more complicated today than it was at the French Open five years ago, when she pulled out a three-set victory against Kim Clijsters
in a riveting final on the red clay at Roland Garros.
Capriati, who had won the Australian Open earlier in the year, became the first woman since Monica Seles
in 1992 to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam. On that day, she never felt more fit, more fulfilled.
"A win like that you almost want to freeze time and make the moment last as long as possible," Capriati said.
The 2-hour-21-minute match is preserved on videotape, but she cannot see herself watching it now. "I think it might make me cry," she said.
Capriati has not played a competitive match since losing to Vera Zvonareva, 6-0, 6-1, in the quarterfinals of the Advanta Championships in Philadelphia in November 2004. She said she knew when she walked off the court that day that it was her last match for a while. But forever?
"I did not think it was going to be my last one, that's for sure," said Capriati, who ascended to No. 1 in the world in the fall of 2001 and was ranked 10th at the end of 2004.
The last time Capriati dropped out of sight, after losing in the first round of the 1993 United States Open as a 17-year-old, she resurfaced nine months later in a seedy Miami hotel room, where she had been using marijuana. She then spent 28 days in drug rehabilitation. Capriati knows that her past gives people reason to wonder if a relapse is not the reason for her latest disappearing act.
"I can see why that is," she said. She sighed and added, "At this point, I've got too many other things that are going on to even think about that, care about that."
Now she is dealing with withdrawal from the sport that made her rich and famous. The worldwide acclaim and public adoration can be habit-forming. What happens when that attention is no longer forthcoming?
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"I was addicted to that sort of lifestyle, that sort of adrenaline rush," Capriati said. "Is that really why I want to go back and play? What do I want to play for? It shouldn't be so I feel better about myself or feel important, and sometimes you're like that. I am still struggling with that."
Tom Gullikson, who coached Capriati when she first turned pro in 1990 and again in 2004, pointed out that tennis had been Capriati's identity for more than half her life.
"It has to be very traumatic for her because she has been playing on the Tour off and on since she was 13 years old," he said in a telephone interview. "For all Jenny's bubbliness and aggressiveness on the court, she always seemed a little shy off it. She's never been quite as sure of herself off the court as on it."
Shortly after Capriati turned professional, a few weeks shy of her 14th birthday, she said she hoped that, after she retired, "when I go down the street people would say, 'There's Jennifer Capriati, the greatest tennis player who ever lived.' "
She seemed firmly headed in that direction when, three months after turning pro, she played in the 1990 French Open and became the youngest woman to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament. She was the gold medalist in singles at the 1992 Summer Olympics and won six titles before she turned 18.
Capriati can look back at things she did in her quest to be the best that probably hastened her shoulder problems and possibly shortened her career: training too hard and too long, competing in too many events, and listening to tournament organizers, sponsors and Tour officials instead of to her body.
"It is amazing how much we torture ourselves because of everything you're never taught," Capriati said. "Not that you don't have the support, but everyone else is clueless around you also. You don't have that Zen master."
She had people entrusted with her image and her diet, her strength training and her court strategies. There was someone to massage her muscles, but no one to knead the knots in her mind.
"I think it would be important to have more of a mental coach to help you make sure you don't get twisted your perceptions of who you are," Capriati said. "So many things that go on in your head are not normal."
When Capriati was able to train, she could count most nights on falling into bed exhausted, her muscles aching for sleep. Now, she said, "the mind races."
"You're going back to decisions you made when you were 5," she added.
On occasion, her frustration has driven her to tears. "I think that's O.K.," she said. "It's like purging."
Capriati has talked to a psychologist to try to make sense of her feelings. "Sometimes you want people to listen so you're not feeling alone in this despair," she said.
There are other players who probably understand what Capriati is going through. Martina Hingis
recently won her first title since coming back from an injury-imposed retirement of nearly three years. Seles, a former No. 1 player who lives in Sarasota, Fla., has not played a match since the 2003 French Open because of injuries, but she has not officially retired.
Capriati said she had considered phoning Seles, who turned pro the year before her, to compare notes. Asked why she had not, Capriati mentioned the awkwardness of confiding in a former competitor.
Seles declined through her agent to be interviewed for this article.
"Don't talk to those who used to be the enemy," Capriati said. She laughed ruefully. She realizes how hollow that excuse rings outside the athletic arena. "Now that I'm living a normal life, I know that other people are what's going to get us through life. You can't do it alone."
Without tennis to occupy her time, Capriati spends a lot of hours inside her head. "A lot of the time my hobby is thinking," she said. "That's what I do." She laughed. "I need to find a hobby."
Capriati recently found herself in Washington, playing a power game that was foreign to her. She was focused on winning points in Congress, pressing for the continued financing of daily physical education classes in schools.
The four hours that Capriati spent mingling with members of Congress was energizing, she said. For one of the few times since her last match victory, against Meghann Shaughnessy in Philadelphia, Capriati felt productive, capable, buoyant. "I really felt like I was doing something meaningful and making a difference," she said.
Navigating the corridors of power opened Capriati's eyes to her own considerable clout. "You realize that people pay attention to you because of your name and what you have done," she said. As opposed to what you have done lately.
Capriati said she had thought about choosing a cause to champion.
She has also considered becoming a tennis commentator or writing a book or counseling younger women. "So maybe a chapter of your life is over," she said, "and you go on to the next one."