Capriati's success must taste sweeter
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle
By the age of 14, she had gone through three coaches, and her overbearing father would soon chase away a fourth. Despite her spunk and sparkle, and her seemingly unbridled enthusiasm for winning tennis matches, there were warning signs of a tragedy in the making. But hardly anybody gave them more than cursory notice.
Jennifer Capriati, barely graduated from junior high, was America's new Can't-Miss Kid. Such was the magnitude of baby Jen-Jen's promise, which made her Chris Evert's heiress apparent after Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger had flamed out while still in pigtails, that a handful of companies had signed her to almost $5 million in endorsement deals. Oil of Olay was among them. A 14-year-old needed a skin-care cream? She was Tiger long before he was.
In mid-May 1990, Newsweek made Capriati its feature story. Three weeks later, she rolled into the semifinals of the French Open, said to be proof that the crushing burden of expectations wouldn't be too heavy a weight for her to lug around. Appearances in the semis at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open would follow the next year.
At the latter, she lost a magnificent three-set slugfest to 18-year-old Monica Seles, a seminal match that redefined women's tennis as a game of equal parts power and precision. It also announced the Seles-Capriati rivalry as a worthy successor to Evert-Navratilova.
Rivals come and go
Poor ol' Steffi Graf, we clucked. At 22, three years removed from an unprecedented Golden Slam, her days surely were numbered. As Yogi Berra might say, her sunset was on the horizon.
Seles took three of the four majors in 1991 and clearly had Steffi pinned. Graf never would survive the one-two punch of Monica and Jenny.
Of course, she did -- with help.
Seles, plunged into a black hole through no fault of her own, never recovered from the emotional damage wrought in the spring of 1993 by the deranged Graf fan who stabbed her. Almost simultaneously, Capriati was self-imploding, turning into a teenager from hell in the throes of adolescent rebellion.
After sulking through a desultory first-round loss at Flushing Meadow that fall, she effectively quit tennis, inserted a ring in her nose, was caught shoplifting, began hanging with a bad crowd in a drug-invested Miami neighborhood, got arrested on possession charges, and failed to win a match of any consequence for more than five years.
Her top-10 ranking evaporated, replaced by a court-case number. Her fairy tale had become a cautionary one.
Anyway, with no Seles and no Capriati to dog her every step, Graf added 11 major championships to go with the 11 she already owned. Had she entered the Australian Open in 1995 and 1996, she might have completed back-to-back Grand Slams.
But her body began to wear out, and another precocious miss, 17-year-old Martina Hingis, helped coax Graf into inevitable retirement. Martina went 4-for-6 in Slams in 1997-98 to draw an early bead on the Open-era standards established by her namesake Navratilova, then surpassed by Steffi.
But Hingis was a throwback to a more gentile era, and her physical shortcomings would be exploited by the bigger, stronger Lindsay Davenport and the bigger, stronger, faster Williams sisters, a two-headed teen monster who had picked up where the heavy-hitting Capriati left off years earlier.
A blessing in disguise
Jen-Jen? Her bad-girl days behind her, she was lurking on the tour's fringes, a bit overweight and underdedicated. But Capriati's wayward period had prevented no small measure of stress on her muscles and connective tissues. She was approaching her mid-20s in human years only, not tennis years. Which brings us to the present.
Eleven springs after her first trip to the French Open semifinals, she one-upped her child self by shoving aside Serena Williams, 19, in the quarters and the still-No. 1-ranked Hingis in the semis. Then, in the longest Roland Garros women's final ever, the just-turned-18 Kim Clijsters ate her red dust.
And thus Capriati, buffed, matured and confident, moves on to Wimbledon halfway to a Slam, alone at last at the pinnacle of her profession. Some would say she's desperate to make up for so much squandered time. Others suggest she's having a ball, with the winning a sweet byproduct.
It's unclear what message we should glean from Jennifer's mottled life story. Every peril of child stardom has been nakedly displayed in the Capriatis' glass house, but is it so terrible when the story produces an ending as happy as hers? And would she appreciate what she has today if her script hadn't had so many zigzags?