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.
Further Reading on Jennifer Capriati
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.