Jennifer Capriati was the pig-tailed pixie and heir to Chris Evert's tennis goodwill, and we all loved her, didn't we?
Jennifer Capriati was the teenage burnout, the accused shoplifter, the troubled girl in a hotel room with drugs and strangers, and what a tragic story she had become, and we were disgusted at the squandering of talent and goodwill, weren't we?
Jennifer Capriati was the lost soul, traveling aimlessly on the tennis circuit, playing the game because she could do nothing else, and wasn't it sad?
Jennifer Capriati was the comeback sports heroine for the ages, a young woman who had come through all her troubles to win Grand Slam titles, to be No. 1, to smile girlishly while tennis fans swooned and gave back their adoration, eager to see the giggly 13-year-old and not the grown woman who wasn't comfortable talking about her past or her future, and we were all redeemed, too, weren't we?
And now, what?
Jennifer Capriati has come to Staples Center for the Home Depot WTA Championships as the third-seeded player and owner of the 2002 Australian Open title. She also comes as the winner of only one match since her upset loss to Amelie Mauresmo in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. She has lost twice to exandra Stevenson and been bageled a set in a 6-0, 6-3 loss to Conchita Martinez.
She was nobody's sweetheart when, a day after her beating by Mauresmo, New York tabloids had photos of Capriati at a nightclub after she had taken off her blouse and was dancing in her bra while dangling a cigarette from her fingers.
Already during the Open, Capriati had been hammered when she was asked for her opinions on Title IX and responded that she had no idea what Title IX was.
Capriati, now 26 and a 12-year veteran of the tour, had her father and coach, Stefano, hovering in the press room at Staples during media day this week, keeping track of what his daughter said and how long she would be forced to endure listening to tough questions about a WTA fashion show and whether she was tired or not.
And now, who?
Is Capriati the pig-tailed sweetheart, the inspirational architect of a heartwarming comeback? Or is she the badly spoken, unhappy, burned-out party girl?
Capriati is neither, of course. Or maybe both.
Capriati didn't ask to navigate teenager-hood on a worldwide stage, where her every blemish and weight gain was noted and criticized, where every mumbled answer was used as evidence that pushing young girls into sports too soon was awful, where every day brought another match, another city.
After all she had gone through, Capriati still seemed surprised that her U.S. Open post-loss partying was photographed and published.
"I mean, I was just out having some fun," she said. "But I didn't mind the photo. My abs looked pretty flat. And I was only holding the cigarette for a friend."
Capriati excuses her post-Open results, losses so bad that it seemed she must be going through the motions, as a natural letdown after an emotional couple of years.
In 2001, Capriati was almost everybody's comeback athlete of the year. She won consecutive Grand Slam tournaments at the Australian and French Open and earned the No. 1 ranking that had been predicted when Capriati was a 14-year-old semifinalist at the French Open in 1990.
That success, her teary reaction to winning the titles, had brought to Capriati, for the months from January through May, unencumbered joy. But when she arrived at Wimbledon and heard nothing but talk of how she was halfway to sweeping the four Grand Slam events and creating special history, the joy disappeared. There were fewer smiles and more tossed rackets and mumbled answers and almost palpable relief when she lost in the semifinals.
She is an athlete who seems to revel in the competition until some notice is taken. She wants to win — but please, don't watch.
Maybe it was inevitable that Capriati's life as a tennis sensation was bound to fall apart.
And maybe it is not surprising now that Capriati still needs her father always nearby, always has a WTA minder making sure no one wants to ask Jennifer a tough question, and always seems sure that somebody, everybody, is out to hurt her.
During this year, when she has not beaten Serena or Venus Williams, has lost three times to Mauresmo, has been involved in an ugly dispute with Fed Cup captain Billie Jean King, has thrown rackets and been caught yelling obscenities at umpires, been photographed in a bra, it seems as if Capriati is finding the spotlight too hot again.
Capriati beat Silvia Farina Elia, 7-5, 6-1, in the first round Thursday night. Her hair is rock-star red and she has the bangs and ponytail of a little girl. Who does Capriati want to be? The rebel, the waif, the little girl we all loved, the adult with talent and faults and expectations? Or all of those things? Or none of them? Who does she want us to see? Who does she want to be?
Diane Pucin can be reached at: email@example.com