American tennis player
Jennifer Capriati took the tennis world by storm in 1990 when she became the youngest player to ever reach a final of a professional tennis tournament just shy of her fourteenth birthday. She was the youngest ever player to reach the semifinals of the major tournaments and the youngest ever player to be ranked in the top ten. Capriati's initial success, however, was short-lived. The rebellious teenager quit tennis at age 17. After battling drugs, legal problems, and her parents' divorce, a more mature Capriati returned to the tennis scene in 1996 at age 20. By 2001 Capriati dominated women's tennis, winning two Grand Slam titles and reaching the number one ranking. Capriati added a third Grand Slam title to her career in 2002 and she continues to be a leading player in women's tennis.
Jennifer Maria Capriati was born on March 29, 1976 in New York, New York. Her mother, Denise, is a New York native who worked as a flight attendant for Pan Am airlines. Her father, Stefano, was a professional soccer player whose career was cut short by a knee injury. He then taught himself to play tennis. He also moved to Spain to pursue a career as a stuntman and he appeared in such films as Patton, The Last Run, and 100 Rifles. Denise and Stefano Capriati met in Spain when Denise was there for a layover. They married two years later and had two children—a daughter, Jennifer, and a son, Steven.
Both Denise and Stefano enjoyed playing tennis and decided that when they had children, they would also want them to play tennis. Jennifer Capriati was engulfed by the tennis world from birth. "Ten days after she was born, I was back on the court, playing to get back into shape," Denise Capriati told Bruce Lowitt of the St. Petersburg Times in November of 1988. "She was right there on the court with me. When she started crawling, it was on the court, pushing a ball around."
At the age of three Capriati began hitting balls with her father. Even though she did not understand the game of tennis, she learned to hit the balls back. Although Capriati was born in New York, she spent her first years of life living in Spain. However, the family moved to Lauderhill, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, in 1980 to build Jennifer's tennis career. At the age of five Capriati began taking lessons at Holiday Park with Jimmy Evert, the father of American tennis sensation Chris Evert . Evert was reluctant to take such a young student, but he was quickly impressed with her skills.
At the age of nine Capriati started taking lessons with Rick Macci at the International Tennis Academy in Grenelefe, Florida so that she could play against other children. Every weekend her parents would drive three and a half hours for her training with Macci. After a year they decided to move to Grenelefe. Capriati attended public school daily from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. and then practiced tennis from 2:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. She had the weekends to herself, unless she was playing in a tournament.
Capriati trained with Macci until age 13 when she began attending the Hopman Tennis Academy at Saddle-brook resort in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Tom Gullickson became her next coach. By this time Capriati was already garnering a lot of attention in the tennis world. In 1988, at age 12, she won the United States Hard Court and Clay Court junior titles for ages 18 and under. The following year she won the singles junior titles at the French Open and the U.S. Open and the doubles junior titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with Meredith McGrath.
At age 13 Capriati was already talking about turning professional. However, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) rules did not allow girls to play in professional tournaments until the month of their fourteenth birthday. Even before her first professional match, Capriati had already signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Diadora, an Italian shoe and sportswear company. Capriati made her professional debut just before her fourteenth birthday at the Virginia Slims tournament in Boca Raton, Florida in March of 1990. Although she did not win the tournament, she became the youngest player ever to reach a professional final. She lost to the number three player in the world, Gabriela Sabatini .
At five feet seven inches and 130 pounds, Capriati was a teenage sensation who was capable of beating women who were older and more experienced than she was. She debuted on the WTA rankings at number 25. "Jennifer's strengths as a player are her aggressiveness, her unpredictability and her power," wrote Charles Leerhsen and Todd Barre of Newsweek in May of 1990. "Her groundstrokes are, as Billie Jean King says, too hot for many women to handle; her backhand is superior to [Steffi] Graf 's."
Won Olympic Gold
Capriati's break out year left a mark on the tennis world. She became the youngest ever semifinalist at the French Open in Roland Garros and she was the youngest ever seed at Wimbledon. She also won her first WTA singles title that year in Puerto Rico at the $150,000 San Juan Open. She finished the 1990 season ranked number eight in the world and at age 14 she became the youngest ever player to be ranked in the top ten. She earned $80,000 in prize money and signed a million dollar deal with racquet company Prince.
Capriati's success continued the following year. In 1991 she began to beat the top players on the women's tour, including tennis legend Martina Navratilova and teen sensation Monica Seles . Capriati reached the semifinals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. At age 15 she was the youngest semifinalist ever at Wimbledon. She finished the 1991 season ranked number six in the world.
In 1992 Capriati continued to flex her tennis muscle. She reached the quarterfinals of three Grand Slam events and won a Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. She attracted more endorsements, adding Oil of Olay and Snapple to her product line. At age 16 she became the youngest player to surpass the one million dollar mark in career prize money. She finished the year ranked seven in the world.
Capriati's fourth year on the professional tour in 1993 started off as well as the first three had. She reached the quarterfinals in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments that year. However, she lost in the first round of the U.S. Open. She was also having some physical problems, suffering from tendonitis and bone chips in her elbow. In September of 1993 Capriati announced that she was going to take time off of the WTA tour to finish high school.
|1976||Born on March 29 in New York, New York|
|1981-85||Trains with Jimmy Evert|
|1985-88||Trains with Rick Macci|
|1989||Trains with Tom Gullickson|
|1989||Wins six junior singles titles and two junior doubles titles|
|1990||Becomes the youngest player ever to reach a professional final|
|1990||Debuts on the Women's Tennis Association rankings at number 25|
|1990||Youngest ever semifinalist at the French Open|
|1990||Youngest ever seed at Wimbledon|
|1990||Wins first singles title in Puerto Rico|
|1990||Finishes season ranked number eight and becomes youngest ever player to be ranked in the top ten|
|1991||Youngest ever semifinalist at Wimbledon|
|1991||Reaches semifinals at U.S. Open|
|1991||Finishes season ranked number six|
|1992||Reaches three Grand Slam quarterfinals|
|1992||Wins Gold Medal at Olympic Games|
|1992||Becomes the youngest player to surpass the million-dollar mark in career prize money at age 16|
|1992||Finishes third season ranked number seven|
|1993||Drops off of the Women's Tennis Association tour to finish high school|
|1993||Receives police citation for shoplifting|
|1994||Arrested in Coral Gables, Florida for possession of marijuana|
|1994||Enters drug rehabilitation program in Miami Beach, Florida for 28 days|
|1994||Plays one tournament and loses in the first round|
|1996||Returns to the Women's Tennis Association tour|
|1996||Finishes year ranked number 24|
|1997||Finishes year ranked number 66|
|1998||Finishes year ranked number 101|
|1999||Wins first title in six years in Strasbourg, Germany|
|1999||Finishes season ranked number 23|
|2000||Reaches first Grand Slam quarterfinal in nine years at the Australian Open|
|2000||Finishes season ranked number 14|
|2001||Wins first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open|
|2001||Reaches number one ranking for the first time|
|2001||Wins second Grand Slam title at the French Open|
|2001||Ends season with over 50 wins for the first time|
|2001||Finishes season ranked number two|
|2002||Wins third Grand Slam title at the Australian Open|
|2002||Reaches the semifinals at the French Open|
|2002||Reaches the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open|
|2002||Finishes season ranked number three|
Talk of Capriati's potential to burn out early began before the teen phenomenon ever turned professional. She was continually compared to teen stars Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger who had both peaked early, but had short careers due to injuries. However, Capriati's parents were aware of these incidents and they tried to prevent the same thing from happening to their daughter. In particular, they took her to the Virginia Sportsmedicine Institute for physical and psychological testing. They started Jennifer on a special conditioning program to help prevent injuries. They also tried to insulate her from the media and allow her to have a normal teenage life when she was not playing tennis.
Capriati managed to keep up her good grades at the Palmer Academy by doing her homework by fax when she was on the road. However, in 1992 she started to show signs of burn out. Her grades began to slip in school and she was acting rebelliously toward her parents and on the court. Capriati's father was criticized for pushing his daughter too hard at such a young age. He responded by stepping down as her coach and hiring Pavel Slozil to fill that role. "Right now she needs me as a father, not as a coach," Stefano Capriati explained to Sally Jenkins of Sports Illustrated in March of 1992. "This way we can keep them separate." Denise Capriati also left her job as a flight attendant so that she could spend more time with her children.
By 1993 Capriati began to feel the pressure of being a top-ranked tennis player. She managed to reach the quarterfinals of three Grand Slam tournaments, but she had hoped to finally win a Grand Slam title. In the fall of 1993 she left the WTA tour to finish high school. In December of that year she received a citation from the Tampa police department for shoplifting a cheap ring from a suburban mall. Although she was a minor and the incident should have been kept confidential, the story was leaked to the media, fueling rumors about her burning out.
After Capriati turned 18 she moved out of her parents home and into her own apartment. By May of 1994 she had left no doubt in her critics' minds that she was indeed burned out. She was arrested in Coral Gables, Florida for possession of marijuana. Two teenage friends who were with her were charged with possession of heroin and suspected crack cocaine. Apparently Capriati had been partying all weekend with friends in a cheap motel and her friends claimed that she had been using drugs for at least a year. Two days after she was arrested, Capriati entered a drug rehabilitation program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach for 28 days.
In September of 1994 the Capriatis moved to Rancho Mirage, California to rebuild their lives and Jennifer's career. "I felt like no one liked me as a person," Capriati told Robin Finn of the New York Times in September of 1994. "I felt like my parents and everybody else thought that tennis was the way to make it in life, they thought it was good, but I thought no one knew or wanted to know the person who was behind my tennis life." Capriati played in one tournament in 1994, but she lost in the first round.
Returned to Tennis
Capriati stayed away from tennis for the next year and a half. Her parents had divorced in 1995 and rumors began circulating about Capriati's stability and whether she would ever return to tennis. In August of 1996 Capriati did return to the tour, although her performance was lackluster. "If Capriati loves competitive tennis, she has a hard time showing it," wrote Ian O'Connor of the New York Daily News. "There were few expressions of misery in defeat, fewer signs of passion." Capriati lost in the first rounds of the French and U.S. Opens. She ended the 1997 season ranked 24 in the world.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1988||U.S. Hard Court 18-and-under singles|
|1988||U.S. Clay Court 18-and-under singles|
|1989||French Open junior singles title|
|1989||U.S. Open junior singles title|
|1989||U.S. Open junior doubles title with Meredith McGrath|
|1989||Wimbledon junior doubles title with Meredith McGrath|
|1989||Astrid Bowl junior singles title|
|1989||Easter Bowl 16-and-under singles title|
|1989||Named World Tennis and TENNIS magazine Junior Player of the Year|
|1989||Named Athlete of the Year in the Sport of Tennis by the U.S. Olympic Committee|
|1989||U.S. Wightman Cup Team|
|1990||First singles title in San Juan, Puerto Rico|
|1990||Received Sanex Women's Tennis Association Tour Most Impressive Newcomer Award|
|1990||TENNIS magazine/Rolex Watch Female Rookie of the Year|
|1990-91, 2000||U.S. Fed Cup Team|
|1991||Two singles titles in San Diego, California and Toronto, Canada|
|1991||Doubles title with Monica Seles at Italian Open|
|1991||Named Most Improved Female Player by TENNIS magazine|
|1992||Singles title in San Diego, California|
|1992||Singles Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain|
|1993||Singles title in Sydney, Australia|
|1996||Named Comeback Player of the Year by TENNIS magazine|
|1999||Two singles titles in Strasbourg, Germany and Quebec, Canada|
|2000||Singles title in Luxembourg|
|2001||First Grand Slam singles title at Australian Open|
|2001||Singles title at Charleston, South Carolina|
|2001||Second Grand Slam singles title at French Open|
|2001||Ranked number one women's player|
|2001||Named Sports Woman of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee|
|2001||Named Sports Illustrated Sports Woman of the Year|
|2001||World Singles Champion, International Tennis Federation|
|2001||Named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year|
|2001||Voted Sportswoman of the Year by Reuters|
|2001||Received Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award|
|2001||Named Women's Tennis Association Tour Player of the Month in January, April, and June|
|2002||Third Grand Slam singles title at Australian Open|
|2002||Received ESPY Award for Best Comeback Athlete|
|2002||Received Laureus Sports Award for Female Athlete of the Year|
|2002||Named January Player of the Month by the International Tennis Writer's Association|
Capriati continued to struggle for the next couple of years. She lost in the early rounds of the Grand Slam tournaments. In 1997 she was ranked only 66 in the
world, and by the end of 1998 her ranking slipped to 101. However, Capriati began to turn her game around by 1999 with the help of a new coach, Harold Solomon. She captured her first title in six years in Strasbourg, and followed up with another title in Quebec City by defeating Chanda Rubin. She also reached the fourth round at the French and U.S. Opens. Capriati's success landed her a lucrative endorsement deal with Fila.
Even though her career was picking up, the media continued to focus on her troubled past. During a press conference for the 1999 U.S. Open, Capriati read from a statement to the press apologizing for the troubles of her youth and requesting the media to focus on her current career rather than the past. The following year marked more successes for Capriati. In 2000 she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal in nine years at the Australian Open, although she lost to Lindsey Davenport. Capriati won a singles title in Luxembourg that year and played singles and doubles for the U.S. Fed Team. She ended the year ranked 17 in the world.
Grand Slam Comeback
Capriati's dream of winning a Grand Slam title finally came true in 2001 when she won the Australian Open. Capriati defeated Martina Hingis , the number one player in the world, by a score of 6-4, 6-3. "The motivation was just to live up to my potential," Capriati told Neil Harman and Andrew Alderson of the Sunday Telegraph. "It was more than just winning a few titles. I wanted the big ones." In order to win the big ones Capriati was committed to get into great shape and to stay focused on her game. "Thanks to a brutal regimen of strength and endurance training, the formerly chunky Capriati had a brand new body, so ripped and muscled it made Hingis look positively waifish," wrote Alex Tresniowski of People magazine.
Capriati followed up on her Australian Open title with another Grand Slam victory at the French Open. She defeated Belgian Kim Clijsters in the finals and dedicated her victory to Corina Marariu, an American player who was battling cancer. Capriati became the first American woman to win the French Open since Chris Evert Lloyd in 1986. "I never thought I'd be standing here 11 years later, after playing my first time here when I was 14 years old," Capriati stated after the tournament, as reported by S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated. "Really, I'm just waiting to wake up from this dream."
After capturing the first two major titles of the year, speculation began about whether Capriati would make a Grand Slam in 2001 by winning the next two major titles. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Capriati lost in the semifinals of Wimbledon to Belgian Justine Henin. She also lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Open to Venus Williams . Capriati finally reached the number one ranking for the first time on October 15, 2001, ending Martina Hingis's 73-week run as number one. She ended the season ranked number two, her first top ten ranking since she left the WTA tour in 1993.
Capriati started 2002 with another win at the Australian Open for her third Grand Slam title. Once again she defeated Martina Hingis in a sweltering final where court temperatures reached 120 degrees. She later reached the semifinals at the French and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, in a year when Serena Williams dominated women's tennis. Nonetheless, Capriati still finished out the year ranked number three in the world.
Jenny Come Lately
By winning the first Grand Slam title of her career, the 24-year-old Capriati had gone from a cautionary tale to a fairy tale. In a euphoric daze she leaped repeatedly, shook Hingis's hand, dropped her racquet and wiped her tears as she made a beeline to Stefano's perch in the players' box. What did they say to each other, given the serpentine path they'd taken to this destination? "Nothing," Stefano said, smiling. "We didn't have to say a word. Jennifer's present finally licked her past."
Source: Wertheim, L. Jon. Sports Illustrated (February 5, 2001): 54.
At age 26 Jennifer Capriati has experienced all of the ups and downs of a professional tennis player. At age 14 she accomplished many firsts as the youngest professional tennis player. Despite many successful tournaments, she was not able to capture a Grand Slam title in the early years. By age 17 she had burned out and dropped off of the professional tour. After battling family and legal troubles, Capriati made a slow comeback to professional tennis starting in 1996. By 2001 she had attained her goal of a Grand Slam title and she remains one of the top ranked women's players. "For whatever reason, it wasn't supposed to happen back then," Capriati told Juan C. Rodriguez of Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service in October of 2001, "and I would have to say it's definitely been a unique journey for me, unique story, I think, for everyone."
Address: International Management Group, 22 E 71st St, New York, NY, 10021-4975.
Almanac of Famous People, 6th edition. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1998.
The Complete Marquis Who's Who. Marquis Who's Who, 2001.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, 1998.
Great Women in Sports. Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Newsmakers 1991, Issue Cumulation. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1991.
Arey, Norman, and A.R. Tays. "The Jennifer Capriati Story." The Atlanta Journal and Constitution (May 18, 1994): G1.
Atkin, Ronald. "Tennis: Interview Jennifer Capriati." Independent on Sunday (May 20, 2001): 15.
Borschke, Margie. "Up From Down Under." Sports Illustrated for Women (March/April 2002): 26.
Conlin, Bill. "Capriati Leaves Memories in the Past." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (June 25, 2001).
Couch, Greg. "The Rise and Fall of Jennifer Capriati." Chicago Sun-Times (January 26, 2001): 144.
Degnan, Susan Miller. "Jennifer Capriati Reaches a Huge Milestone in Roller-coaster Life." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (January 27, 2001).
Finn, Robin. "The Second Time Around for Jennifer Capriati." The New York Times (September 26, 1994).
Fins, Antonio N. "Jennifer Capriati, Million-Dollar Baby." Business Week (March 26, 1990): 104.
Harman, Neil, and Andrew Alderson. "The Return of Prodigal Tennis Star Jennifer Capriati is Back, Having Beaten the Odds." Sunday Telegraph (January 21, 2001): 3.
Harwitt, Sandra. "The Glorious Return of America's Lost Girl." The Guardian (June 23, 2001): 2.
Hogan, John. "So Nice to Have You Back, Jennifer." The Australian (January 8, 1997): 17.
Howard, Johnette. "This Could Be Capriati's Biggest Victory." The Sporting News (February 7, 1994): 8.
Jenkins, Sally. "Teenage Confidential." Sports Illustrated (March 30, 1992): 26-29.
"Jennifer Capriati." U.S. News and World Report (November 12, 1990): 18.
"Jennifer Capriati: A Teen-ager Tailored for the Tennis Court." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (March 25, 1990): 7F.
"Jennifer's World." Sports Illustrated (May 16, 1994): 14.
Jones, Malcolm, and Alisha Davis. "Newsmakers." Newsweek (June 18, 2001): 62.
Leerhsen, Charles, and Todd Barre. "Teen Queen of Tennis." Newsweek (May 14, 1990): 58.
Lowitt, Bruce. "On the Ball: Jennifer Capriati, 12, Can't Wait to Turn Pro." St. Petersburg Times (November 13, 1988): 1C.
Lupica, Mike. "She Was an American Girl." The Sporting News (May 30, 1994): 8.
O'Connor, Ian. "Capriati Can Still Hit Ball Like a Teen; It's Time She Is Allowed to Live Like One." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (August 27, 1996).
Ormsby, Mary. "Jennifer Capriati's Return to Greatness." Toronto Star (August 11, 2001): S03.
Price, S.L. "Vive L'Amour: At the Love-filled French Open, a Determined Jennifer Capriati and a Dominant Gustavo Kuerten Stole the Fans' Hearts." Sports Illustrated (June 18, 2001): 52.
"Reactions to Arrest of Jennifer Capriati." USA Today (May 27, 1994): 12 C.
Reed, Susan. "Losing Her Grip: A Teen Star's Arrest Raises Hard Questions About How Fast a Gifted Child Can Be Pushed." People Weekly (May 30, 1994): 80-84.
Rodriguez, Juan C. "Capriati Ascends to the Top." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (October 17, 2001).
Scheiber, Dave. "Tennis' New Legend in the Making (Jennifer Capriati)." Saturday Evening Post (July-August 1990): 68-70.
Shaffer, Alyssa. "Jenny's Core Moves." Sports Illustrated for Women (May/June 2001): 77.
Tresniowski, Alex, and Dennis Passa. "Jenny, Anyone?" People (February 12, 2001): 54.
Viner, Brian. "At 14, Jennifer Capriati Was a Millionaire Tennis Sensation. At 16, She Was a Drug User, Shoplifter and Binge-Eater. Now She's 24, and She May Be About to Win Wimbledon." The Independent (June 22, 2001).
Voepel, Michelle. "Capriati's Long Way Back." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (June 24, 2001).
Wertheim, L. Jon. "The Hard Return." Sports Illustrated for Women (December/January 2002): 58.
Wertheim, L. Jon. "How Jenny Got Her Groove Back." Sports Illustrated for Women (May/June 2001): 74.
Wertheim, L. Jon. "Jenny Come Lately: A Mature, Resilient Jennifer Capriati Put Her Difficult Past Behind Her and Won Her First Major, While a Focused Andre Agassi Swept to His Third Australian Open Title." Sports Illustrated (February 5, 2001): 54.
Wertheim, L. Jon. "A Real Hottie: While Others Were Doing a Fast Fade, Indomitable Jennifer Capriati Took the Heat at the Australian Open and Refused to Wilt." Sports Illustrated (February 4, 2002).
The 2002 ESPY Awards. http://espn.go.com/espy2002/s/02nomineesindex.html (July 11, 2002).
Olympic USA. http://www.olympic-usa.org (January 4, 2003).
TENNIS. http://www.tennis.com (January 3, 2003).
Tennis Corner. http://www.tenniscorner.net (January 4, 2003).
WTA Tour. http://www.wtatour.com (January 3, 2003).
Yahoo! Sports: Tennis. http://sports.yahoo.com/ten/news/capriati02.html (January 3, 2003).
Sketch by Janet P. Stamatel
In March of 1990, Jennifer Capriati (born 1976) turned pro on the cutthroat women's professional tennis circuit.
"Even though I'm going to be playing older ladies, when I'm out there playing, I'm as old as they are," she told the New York Times. "I have no fear. I guess I was just born with that kind of mind." And that kind of talent.
Capriati, the youngest tennis player ever to turn pro, was met with overwhelming expectations from both the tennis world, the public, and the media upon her debut at the Virginia Slims tournament in Boca Raton, Florida. The pressure was not just for her potential in tennis, but for her potential as the best charismatic draw for the U.S. women's circuit since Chris Evert.
The question is whether or not Jennifer Capriati is capable of living through this. She seems more likely to stumble down the path of former tennis pros like Jimmy Arias, Andrea Jaeger, and Tracy Austin. There is a reason why that path is becoming somewhat of a cliché. Capriati's short life in this pressure cooker is one explanation.
Headlines trumpeted Capriati as the "Teen Queen of Tennis," "Eighth Grade Wonder," and "The Next Chris Evert." Her own coach, Tom Gullikson of the U.S. Tennis Association, said flatly to a Los Angeles Times reporter, "It's our viewpoint that [Capriati] is without question the most talented young pro in the world, man or woman." Interviewers scrounged for details of her life—she was five-foot-seven, 130 pounds, shoe size 8 1/2. Her favorite rap song: "Bust A Move." Favorite foods: hamburgers, chips, hot fudge sundaes. Favorite movie star: Johnny Depp. Favorite color: pink. Favorite pet: the family Shih Tzu, Bianca.
Meanwhile, Capriati just hoped she wouldn't look "dorky" on television, and she told the Los Angeles Times she'd like to be remembered this way: "I'd like, you know, when I retire, like, you know, when I go down the street, people would say, 'There's Jennifer Capriati, the greatest tennis player who ever lived."' The concept of a young, pretty teenager who could sigh over Twizzlers licorice, white leather mini skirts, and the baby on the TV show, The Simpsons, while also blasting her way to the top of the tennis circuit, ignited thousands of new Capriati fans. One magazine writer wondered whether people wanted to see history in the making or really just had a weird fascination with seeing a player who might be a flash in the pan, used up, and burnt out by age 21. But those apprehensions were at first blotted out by the sheer talent and exuberance of Capriati's early play. In her first match she knocked off four seeded players and advanced to the finals before being beaten by Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini on March 11. With every later tournament, she showed her raw, powerful talent with booming ground strokes, a 94 m.p.h. overhead serve, and cool nerves that belied her young age.
In April, she reached the finals of the Family Circle Magazine Hilton Head Cup, finally losing to Martina Navratilova. Capriati was delighted, still, just to be there; she called Navratilova "a lege, you know, like, a legend." In June, seeded No. 17, she reached the quarterfinals of the French Open before she was beaten by No. 1 Monica Seles of Yugoslavia. In July she made it to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, ranked No. 12, before losing to Germany's Steffi Graff. On July 16, she won her first professional title, at the Mount Cranmore International tournament in New Hampshire. In August, she was defeated in the early rounds at the U.S. Open, where she was ranked 16th. In September, as sixth seed, she made it to the quarterfinals of the Nichirei International Tennis Championship in Tokyo.
Though she didn't win any big matches, many believed Capriati had set the stage for her advancement to the pinnacle of women's tennis. It was a climb she was groomed for from infancy. Jennifer Capriati was born in 1976 on Long Island, New York, to Stefano and Denise Capriati. Her Bronx-born mother, who is a Pan Am flight attendant, met her father in Spain in 1972. Stefano Capriati, a native of Milan, Italy, was a resident of Spain, where he was a movie stuntman and a self-taught tennis pro. They married and settled in Spain. Stefano Capriati knew Jennifer would be a tennis player when she was still in the womb, says Denise Capriati, who played recreational tennis until the day she went into labor with Jennifer. "Stefano knew she would be a tennis player … just by the way I carried her," she told Sports Illustrated. They moved to New York so Jennifer could be born in the United States, then moved back to Spain. Another child, Steven, was born three years later.
When Jennifer was a baby, her father did cribside calisthenics, propping her backside with a pillow and helping her do situps. When she was four years old, the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to further Jennifer's tennis. By then, she could hold her own with a ball machine. "Already she could rally a hundred times on the court," her father said. He took her to see Jimmy Evert, tennis star Chris Evert's father. Evert did not even want to meet her since she was only four, but when he saw her skill he agreed to take her as a student. He coached her from age four to age nine. Along the way, Jennifer became friends with Chris Evert. In 1987, the tennis star gave Jennifer a Christmas bracelet that reads, "Jennifer, Love Chris" that Jennifer wears in all her matches.
From age ten to 13, Jennifer was coached by Rick Macci in Haines City, Florida, then went to the Hopman Tennis Academy at Saddlebrook resort in Wesley Chapel, where she got a third coach, Tom Gullickson. But the driving force in her budding career was her father, whom she called her main coach and whom the other members of her entourage called "the main boss." Stefano Capriati considers himself a tennis father, in the best sense of the term, noting that there is a difference between pushing and aiding. "You try to direct her in the right way, and you see she has the potential," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I see she enjoys it. After 9-10 years old, you cannot direct them anymore. They must want it."
As a junior tennis player, Jennifer wanted it. She relished the competition. In 1988 at age 12, she won the U.S. 18-and-under championships on both hard and clay courts. In 1989 she won the 18-and-under French Open, made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and won the junior title at the U.S. Open. The rules said girls under 14 could not turn pro, but in 1989, her father, coaches, and tennis boosters thought she was ready. "People say she's only 13, but they miss the point. She's already put in 10 years," said tennis legend Billie Jean King, Jennifer's periodic doubles partner. "I'm telling you," said her former coach, Rick Macci, in Sports Illustrated. "She's scary."
However, the United States Tennis Federation was stubborn. It would not allow Jennifer to play until the month of her 14th birthday. Her father thought about challenging the rule in court, then changed his mind. Already, Jennifer Capriati was getting lucrative endorsement contracts. The Italian sportswear maker Diadora of Caerano Di San Marco gave her $3 million to endorse their line and Prince gave her $1 million to endorse their tennis rackets. Later in the year, she made a commercial for Oil of Olay face cream. "First, immortality, then the SATs," joked Newsweek. But it was no joke: before even turning pro, Capriati was the third highest endorsed tennis player behind Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. John Evert, Chris Evert's brother, became Capriati's business manager.
In between the relentless pace of tennis, Jennifer Capriati went through eighth grade at Palmer Academy in Wesley Chapel. When she couldn't go to school, she'd take her homework with her or have it sent to her on the road by fax machine. By March when she went pro, she still had to do homework in between matches. In September she started ninth grade at St. Andrew's School in Boca Raton, a 600-student private school. She was prepared to leave the Harry Hopman tennis facility of Saddlebrook and was offered a contract as touring pro at the Broken Sound Club in Boca Raton. But later that month, her parents changed their minds.
Uncomfortable in a temporary home in Boca Raton, the Capriatis went back to Saddlebrook and Jennifer returned to the Palmer Academy, where she had attended eighth grade. The family intended to move to Broken Sound in January, then realized it would be better to remain at Saddlebrook. "There is life besides tennis," said Denise Capriati. "Jennifer was so happy to see her friends again. Jennifer's emotional happiness is the bottom line."
Also in September of 1990, ranked 12th in the world, Jennifer traveled to Tokyo for the Nichirei tennis championship. The remainder of the year she planned to do an exhibition match for former first lady Nancy Reagan, one for Chris Evert, and then hoped to make the Virginia Slims Championships in New York in November. The pace was grueling, but her spirits were high. "I feel like a kid, kidwise. But tenniswise, I feel I guess I have talent, I guess," she told the Los Angeles Times. "When I'm on the court, I just block out everything I'm thinking about and bring out my tennis stuff. When I'm off, I'm just a kid."
Her tennis stuff continued to wow observers. One coach praised her aggressive style, unpredictability, and power: "She was strong before, but her movement wasn't very good. Now she covers the court as well as any of the men I can think of," said Tommy Thompson, head tennis pro at Saddlebrook, to the New York Times. "She's going to be different than most women, who tend to play very defensively, because she's very confident at net. She has no fear when she's going in there to volley. Thompson said later in the Washington Post, "She's a kid off the court but a killer on it."
Whether the kid can continue life as a killer on the court without becoming overwhelmed is the question many had as her first six months on the circuit ended. While Capriati appeared to have a solid head on her shoulders, there were the inevitable comparisons with Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin, both of whom started tennis as young sensations but burned out from injuries and pressure. Jaeger won her first pro tournament at 14 but left the tour at 19 because of shoulder injuries. Austin, at 16, was the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Open, in 1979, but foot and back injuries sidelined her permanently at age 19. When asked about this by interviewers, Capriati sighs and replies wearily. "It's like, you know, it's not my fault," she says of Jaeger's and Austin's short-lived careers in the Los Angeles Times. "Why does everybody think it's going to happen to me? How do they know what my limit is?"
As time went on, she started to learn her limit. In 1991, Capriati peaked. She ranked in the Top 10 (No. 6) after reaching the finals of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. In 1992, she won the gold medal in the Olympics at Barcelona, but no other tournaments. In September, after losing in the first round of the U.S. Open, Capriati returned to Florida from the tour to recover from bone chips and tendinitis in her elbow. In November, she moved out of her parents' home to an apartment. She later announced in January of 1993 that she was taking a leave from the tour to complete high school. In March, she dropped out of high school and moved to Boca Raton.
In May of 1994, Capriati was arrested in Coral Gables, Florida for possession of marijuana. According to People magazine, the arrest followed a weekend of serious partying with other teenagers. One of the teens, Thomas Wineland, was booked for possession of suspected crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia. He later claimed that he and Capriati smoked crack for a couple of hours, then smoked reefers, took painkillers, and drank. Two days after the arrest, Capriati started a drug rehabilitation program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.
A flurry of criticism and "I told you so" articles followed from the media. Mike Lupica of The Sporting News wrote an article reflecting the thoughts of those who know Capriati. He had plenty of negative things to say about Stefano Capriati and the Capriati entourage. He wrote, "The short-term marketing was brilliant. The short-term thinking was stupid and greedy." Tennis magazine commented, " … the women's tour kept changing its rules to make sure Capriati played as often as possible. They were called by many 'The Capriati Rules.' Four years later, suddenly very concerned about little girls playing tennis for a living, the same group passed rules limiting play for teenagers. They also should have been called 'The Capriati Rules."'
Capriati did come back and play one match in November 1994—losing to Anke Huber in Philadelphia. She then remained absent from tennis until February 1996. She won two matches in the Faber Grand Prix in Germany, finally losing in the quarterfinals. Anne Person Worcester, The Corel WTA Tour's chief executive officer, told Tennis magazine, "The hardest part about coming back for her is not the tennis, not the other players, not the fans; it's the media." Worcester believes that only Capriati's drug arrest, not her accomplishments will be highlighted in everything written about her. Tennis magazine suggested that Capriati will have to find the right support group to accompany her on the tour to keep the pressure at bay. Stefano Capriati, now divorced from Jennifer's mother, Denise, traveled with Jennifer to Germany, but insisted that he was not pushing her. He told Tennis, "She will decide what it is she wants. Whatever she will decide, I will give. Whatever she needs, I give."
Capriati lost in the first round of the French Open in May 1996. The Sporting News reported that five days later, she had another brush with the law. Capriati was at a nightclub in Miami with her boyfriend. Police said she got into an argument with him and tried to punch him. Her boyfriend ducked, and Capriati accidentally hit a waitress. Club security turned her over to the police. The state attorney will determine if charges will be filed.
In late June, Capriati decided not to play Wimbledon— one of the biggest tournaments of the year. She withdrew due to lack of preparation, according to her spokesperson. Also, Capriati will not be able to defend her Barcelona Olympic gold medal in Atlanta because her current ranking of 104 is too low. The women's coach, Billie Jean King, commented to The Sporting News, "I've told Jennifer all along, 'You've got no chance.'"
At 20 years old, Jennifer Capriati had won more tournaments and made more money in two years than most professional tennis players do in an entire career. Her success has also provided her with many options: she could take her money and pay for college and forget tennis; she could halfheartedly play a few tournaments a year, eventually leaving tennis; or she could come back and play tennis with everything she can muster because she wants it. Her true fans can only hope that she finds the courage and support she needs to live a normal life.
Detroit Free Press, June 6, 1990; June 8, 1990; June 30, 1990; July 3, 1990; July 16, 1990; August 31, 1990; September 4, 1990; September 14, 1990.
Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, September 16, 1990;September 25, 1990.
Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1990.
Newsweek, May 14, 1990.
New York Times, March 5, 1990; May 20, 1990.
People, May 30, 1994.
Sports Illustrated, February 26, 1990; March 19, 1990; April 16, 1990.
Tennis, January, 1996; May, 1996.
The Sporting News, February 7, 1994; June 5, 1996; June 19, 1996.
Time, March 26, 1990. □