If ever there was a poster child for not pushing children too far too fast in the world of professional sports, it would be Jennifer Capriati. Having said that, I must also admit that Capriati could also be a poster child for perseverance and fortitude.
Capriati, a three-time Grand Slam winner, has lived a life more reminiscent of a professional boxer than a tennis player. To put it mildly, Capriati has towered over fallen opponents, been dizzyed herself and – been floored by a devastating knockout punch or two. However, I have to give credit where credit is due and say that, Capriati, not only picked herself up off the canvas, but bounced back to win three Championship titles in the process.
Capriati was introduced to tennis while she was still a toddler by her father, Stefano Capriati, who was, no pun intended, a former boxer, turned tennis coach.
In 1986, when Jennifer’s burgeoning tennis talent became obvious, her family moved to Florida, where the ten-year-old player was enrolled in an intense training program run by Jimmy Evert, the father of Chris Evert. In 1989, Capriati served notice to the tennis world by becoming the youngest player to win the French Open junior singles title at the age of 13 years and 2 months. (The record stood until 1993, when it was broken by Martina Hingis who won the title as a 12-year-old).
Capriati went on to win the junior singles title at the 1989 US Open, and the junior doubles titles at both the US Open and Wimbledon (partnering Meredith McGrath) and turned professional on March 5 1990, three weeks before her 14th birthday.
In her debut tournament on the tour, at Boca Raton, Florida, she defeated four seeded players on her way to becoming the youngest-ever player to reach a tour final, where she lost 6-4, 7-5 to Gabriela Sabatini.
Three months later, she became the youngest-ever semifinalist at the French Open where she lost to the eventual champion Monica Seles. Capriati went on to reach the fourth round at both Wimbledon and the US Open that year, and won her first top-level singles title that October at San Juan, Puerto Rico. Capriati finished her first year ranked an astounding number 8 on the tour.
1991 saw Capriati reach the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open where she became Wimbledon’s youngest semifinalist ever after defeating the defending-champion Martina Navratilova in the quarterfinals, forcing Navratilova’s earliest Wimbledon exit in 14 years.
Capriati also won two singles titles that year, as well as her first (and only) tour doubles title (in Rome partnering with Seles).
The biggest moment of Capriati’s young career came in 1992, when she won the women’s singles Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona. In the final, she defeated Steffi Graf (who was the Gold Medalist four years earlier in Seoul) in three sets 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Despite her Olympic triumph, it became clear to observers that Capriati was struggling to cope with the pressures of playing at the top by the end of 1992. The enjoyment of playing the game which she exuded when she first joined the tour seemed to have drained away, and her results began to immediately suffer.
After some disappointing losses in 1993, Capriati took a break from the tour to concentrate on her high school studies. She soon ran into personal and legal troubles and was involved in a shoplifting incident in December 1993. In May of the following year, she was arrested for marijuana possession and in November of 1994, a return to the tour lasted just one match, which she lost. Following that perplexing incident, Capriati went on a sabbatical of 15 months and did not play on the tour at all in 1995.
With her career seemingly in doubt, Capriati took to the court with a new interest and determination in the game, returning to the tour in 1996 and beginning a meteroric rise that would culminate in claiming the Number 1 player in the world. However, it would not be until May of 1999, that Capriati would finally win her first tournament in six years.
In 2001, 11 years after she had first taken the tour by storm as a young prodigy, Capriati finally made her Grand Slam breakthrough. She reached the final of the Australian Open against the then-World No. 1 player Martina Hingis, and won in straight sets 6-4, 6-3. She followed this up by capturing the French Open title five months later, beating Kim Clijsters in a dramatic final 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. In October of that same year, Capriati reached the World No. 1 ranking.
Capriati won her third Grand Slam title in 2002, when she successfully defended her Australian Open crown. In the final against Hingis, Capriati was 4-6, 0-4 down at one point, but battled back to win 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. She fought off four Championship points during the final, which is a record for most match points saved during a Grand Slam tournament final.
In 2003, Capriati made an inspiring run to the US Open semifinals, only to lose a classic match to Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne in a third set tiebreak.
During her career, Capriati has won 14 professional singles titles and 1 doubles title. Recently, she has suffered several dramatic defeats and has struggled with different injuries that have kept her from playing a full tour schedule, these injuries include the right shoulder and wrist with two surgeries being performed on each.
Whether Capriati ever returs to the upper echelon of professional tennis, and I suspect her time has passed, she has set a shining example – both good and bad – for an immeasurable legion number of youths who aspire to become pros one day in a multitude of sports. In the end, that may be Capriati’s legacy – and not a bad one at that.