Capriati's instincts aren't always enough
Capriati's instincts aren't always enough
By Joel Drucker
Special to ESPN.com
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- With exasperating annoyance and exhilarating shotmaking, Jennifer Capriati rides a roller-coaster in the course of a single match -- or is it a single career?
It was just past 11 p.m. on Friday night in the California desert and Capriati was battling in the semifinals of the Pacific Life Open with Lindsay Davenport. After nearly two hours, the two were deadlocked at 4-all in the third. Serving at love-30, Capriati skied a forehand 10 feet long and then netted a backhand to hand Davenport the pivotal break. Davenport won 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
"She stepped it up at that point more than I did," Capriati said. "She got some good opportunities and took advantage of them. She played some unbelievable tennis."
The defeat marked the 20th straight event Capriati has played since last winning a tournament at the '02 Australian Open.
"It's a grind all year through," Capriati said of her less-than-satisfactory results of the last 14 months. "Maybe I wasn't working as hard as I usually do. But I think that helps that you do take the break or you realize, you know, that you start missing it and you start missing playing well -- having the results. So that's the motivation that gets me back to working hard. It's sort of a cycle up and down. I think everyone goes through it."
In the wake of the loss in Indian Wells, the Capriati camp remained optimistic. Her first-round defeat at the Australian this past January was ancient history. The negative memories of the brief time she'd spent living near Indian Wells during her exile years were erased by this year's wins.
"Last time I played here, I didn't have a couple of Grand Slams," Capriati said. "This time I do. You know, whatever things about this place that bothered me before, I think I can get past that and I'm more of a mature person to not let anyplace dictate what I'm going to do."
Steven Capriati, her brother and on-site executor of father-coach Stefano's will, was glad see her go so far.
"She loves tennis," Steven said, as he waited just outside the women's locker room. "If she didn't, do you think she'd want to come back from these kind of losses?"
Capriati's trainer of three weeks, Lisa Austin, was equally keen. "She's fast, but we can make her even faster, help her learn to use her speed not just for offense but for defense."
Let's hope so. Off the court, Capriati exhibits a world-weary, insular quality (she is ruthlessly perfunctory with all public and press requests). On the court, she still has a remarkable appetite and capacity for fighting her way through matches. Back her into a corner -- whether during a point or in the wake of her exile from the tour -- and she'll strike back with dazzling power, shot making and borderline creativity. Against Davenport, she scored constantly with whipping crosscourt passing shots and mid-point rips down the line.
Yet when it comes to being a creator rather than a counterpuncher, Capriati regresses. So often, she still plays like the spunky, fearless prodigy who sprouted out of the juniors in 1990 and a year later reached the semis of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at 15. Back then it was all instinct and tenacity. No one ever expected her to play with the devious texture of Martina Hingis, but one looked forward to the ripening of the physical into the cognitive.
Instead, for reasons we'll likely never know, over months that turned into years, Capriati grew jaded off the tennis court and intellectually stunted on it. And then she re-emerged, a high schooler suddenly showing up with a home-made doctorate, impressively willing herself to three Grand Slams. Poof!
Davenport's story arc poses a striking contrast. Though the same age as Capriati, Davenport was expected to be little more than a character actor. But while Capriati vanished, Davenport went to school, honing her game against the top players of the '90s. Like Capriati, Davenport was a well-trained junior with impressive gross motor skills.
The education she underwent during those years Capriati missed, seasoned Davenport's brain, adding just enough spice to make her steak-and-potatoes baseline game (a less athletic version of Capriati's) deceptively flavorful. There's a design to her brand of power tennis that Capriati lacks. On a couple of points in their match, for example, she threw in some moonballs that took Capriati out of her power range and opened up the court for Davenport to smack oppressive groundstrokes.
Credit Davenport for willingly letting herself absorb input from others throughout her pro career, most notably during her long association with Robert Van't Hof. Capriati only hints at letting anyone other than her family advise her. Say what you will about intimacy and knowledge, there is something more valuable about hearing the brutal truth about your tennis from an outsider than a blood relative. For so long, we've been accustomed to treating Capriati with kid gloves, treating her preciously because she was burned out and engaged in some activities we'll never truly know about. But alas, there are times when her emotional vulnerability has been a smoke screen for an immature tennis game.
"You want to make sure you're not 45 years old, sitting at an airport and asking yourself, 'What if?'" Billie Jean King once said. Let's hope Capriati does everything she can, physically and mentally, to avoid asking this question. As her incredible career has proven, there's always more time than you think -- particularly if you think."