Homework First, Then Go Play
The Washington Post Jan 20, 1994; Johnette Howard;
flGrand The Washington Post Company Jan 20, 1994
Normally the third week of January signals a renewal for the diehard tennis fan. By now the pro players have ended their six- or eight-week winter hiatus. The men's and women's tours - which both fall dark over the holidays - gear up the machinery again. Everyone who gives a whit about a lob or a drop shot looks off toward the sunshine and sweltering heat of Melbourne for the first Grand Slam event of the year, the two-week Australian Open. In some ways, the tournament has become to the tennis fan what spring training is to the baseball aficionado. With this difference: Change comes much more slowly to tennis than to baseball.
But not this year.
No matter what else happens in 1994, tennis is already guaranteed of these slow developing, foundation-rocking dramas: Jennifer Capriati is stepping back from the tour and Martina Navratilova, the sport's diva, says she's making her last go-round in 1994. Boris Becker is lashing out, perhaps flaming out, with allegations about drug use on the tour that he has yet to prove. Everyone is still waiting for a detailed explanation of what's taking so long for Monica Seles to return. And proof that Jim Courier's year-end swan dive last year was not, as rumored, a sign he's approaching burn out.
Of all those subplots on the agenda, only Capriati's pullout from the first five months of the tour qualifies as good news.
When word came Monday that she was abdicating her role as America's next tennis queen - at least until she finishes her senior year of high school - it wasn't a total surprise. Within tennis, rumblings had been going on for months that all was not well with the 17-year-old star or her family-run camp. And evidence backed it up.
For Capriati, 1993 was a listless year. Tendinitis and a bone chip in her right elbow were bothering her in March. The year also included a lackluster run at Wimbledon, a first-round flameout at the U.S. Open at the end of August and a December citation by Tampa police for allegedly shoplifting jewelry. Capriati insists she walked away with a $15 ring by mistake and was appalled by the publicity she received.
Fellow players said Capriati didn't seem to be enjoying herself and postmatch questions about her father's role in her career prompted her short-tempered replies, such as "What kind of question is that?"
Though her elbow injury was real, even Capriati's September announcement that she was taking off the rest of the year was met with some tittering: Had something deeper gone wrong?
We know now it has, of course - though there's nothing to suggest Capriati is as tormented as teen phenom Andrea Jaeger was when she quit before her 20th birthday, or as unhappy as Tracy Austin confessed to being after she left the tour in 1983.
Capriati is hardly the only young tennis player to belatedly admit some personal anguish about being so young and being on the tour. Steffi Graf, who turned pro at 14, has spoken of struggling with her success and "feeling sorry for myself." Though Seles' career had a jackrabbit start, she's long dealt with the pressure of being the breadwinner for her family after they emigrated from the former Yugoslavia to Florida to further her tennis career. Pam Shriver was a sensation at 16, but never won a Grand Slam singles title and later admitted to struggling with bouts of self-loathing. Just last year, Andre Agassi talked of his struggles with public life and his quick fame.
Even Pete Sampras, who burst on the scene by winning the U.S. Open at 19, said he was "relieved" when he failed to defend his title the next year.
"It changed my life," he said. And not all for the better.
What's different about Capriati is the speed of her ascent and, now, her decision to insist on a lull. Since turning pro in 1990, Capriati has hit some high bench marks: youngest to reach a Grand Slam semifinal (French Open, 1990); youngest to be ranked in the top 10 (age 14); Olympic gold medal (age 16). But she was also bitten by something Graf, Seles and the others didn't have to endure: suffocating attention and a $4.5 million-plus endorsement bonanza that preceded the first ball she ever hit as a pro.
That's what makes her different. The process of selling off chunks of Capriati began when she was a 9-year-old phenom. By then, agents were already jostling to sign her and her father bragged he already had a handshake deal to take Jennifer to the Italian Open the first year she turned pro. Now, around tennis, much of the blame for Capriati's feeling that she has to pull back is being laid at the feet of her handlers - and especially her father, Stefano. But Jennifer has never publicly gone along with that. Not even now.
Capriati's decision to step back and move into her own apartment - and by all accounts, both decisions were initiated by her - looks like the best thing for everyone involved. If Capriati were going to grab for what she calls a "normal life" and experience the last slice of adolescence, the next five months has to be the time she does it.
So compliment her for having the good sense to enjoy her senior year uninterrupted, and her willingness to stare down the sponsors who, though they're sticking by her, probably weren't crazy about her decision. Capriati's agent says she's sure Capriati will return at some point. If she's right, what the tennis star has is not much worse than a deep case of ennui.
And you can recover from that.
Here's hoping she sticks to her decision to stay away from the working world. And that she has a great time this spring at the prom