Look Out World, Here Comes Jennifer Againby Jessica Rosenberg
At 14 she was being followed around Paris by a camera crew, wearing millions of dollars worth of endorsements, and appearing in ads for Oil of Olay before she actually had any zits. At 18 she was busted for possession. At 24 she won her first Grand Slam, tennis' holy grail of tournaments. It's been a strange decade for Jennifer Capriati.
It seems like she's been around forever. 24? She's only 24? That's probably because she turned pro ten years ago, the youngest ever at the time. Now it's normal to see kids in braces toting their rackets around the world. But "Jen-Jen Mania" as it was called, was something different.
Remember, this was before Pete Sampras, Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, and after Chris Evert. There was no such thing as an American tennis star, and the USTA desperately needed one. Up stepped Jen, 14, pretty, bubbly and incredibly talented. Huge shoulders.
Jen also came in a complete set including little brother Steven, mother Denise and overbearing father Stefano, who hung tiny rackets over her cradle when she was a baby and acted as her agent and coach. He made her the biggest name in the world before she started high school (Okay, so she didn't go to high school. Who has time?) and by the time she was old enough to graduate, she was claiming he had ruined her life.
The pro tour is hard. You have to spend 50 weeks of the year either on a plane or on the courts, defending your points. It's all about points. You get 'em for reaching the quarters or better at the weekly tournaments. You lose 'em if you fail to reach the same round at the same tournament the next year. You get lots of them if you do well in the four Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon. Jen began with a trip to the French Open semifinals.
The next year, she went to the semis at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Her ranking reached number six in the world and she was only 15 years old. "Can't miss superstar," everyone agreed. "The Next Evert." Hell, even Evert said it.
There was only one problem: Jen stopped winning. After those magical early years, everything fell apart. She slogged around the tour, reaching a final here, a final there. 'Here' and 'there' means places like San Diego, Sydney and Toronto. It does not mean the Slams, where she continued to be a quarterfinalist (most of the time) for the next few years, until her performances started to get even worse. It seemed that the early promise that Jen showed, with her bright smile and her "y'know" teenage insouciance, had turned into cold hard reality once it came time to put up or shut up.
The people who had been saying, "Look at how good she is already! By next year she'll be able to take out Steffi,'" began to say "she can't beat the top players,'" "she can't win the big ones." People started paying attention to other teenagers, like Monica Seles, who had quietly won nine Slams before the age of 20. Jen faded from the picture, despite a patriotic victory in the '92 Olympics, taking a well-publicized break from the tour, and everyone wondered: was it all a mirage?
Then, in 1993, came the picture on the news that shocked the world. "18 year old Jennifer Capriati" looking pudgy and cracked out, with a glazed, dazed look in her eyes "has been arrested in Florida for possession of marijuana." She was found in a hotel room with a couple of guys and a lot of pot. On a tour where the image of players is everything, this was a no-no for Jen-Jen (not to mention they don't like it when you gain weight). Jen followed up with a blow-out with Stefano, (and it was about time, most thought) in which she declared that his ongoing quest for fame and fortune had cost her her childhood and her mental health.
A series of tour humiliations and hiatuses followed. When Capriati did appear on-court she was overweight, sluggish and without motivation. It was sad to watch someone who had once played with so much verve move around like a robot. This was widely believed to be the end of her career.
Fast forward six years to '99. The news rockets around the tour: Capriati's won a tournament! She looksÉfit! She looksÉdetermined! She looksÉolder! Like Dick Nixon, Capriati reemerged on the public stage, and this time, she was out to prove herself. She took her dad back as coach and manager, and set about rebuilding her tennis life.
At first, people didn't pay much attention. There were new kiddie porn stars to worry about: Anna Kournikova, for instance, and the Williams sisters. Capriati was over the hill; she was old news. She was 24! Why doesn't she retire already? But a newly invigorated Capriati had bulked up, toughened her mental game and was shooting for a showdown in '01's first Slam, the Australian Open.
Say what you will about her having the wimpy half of the draw, but Capriati played dominating tennis. Of course it helped that Martina Hingis waxed both the Williamses in a row, and that Davenport basically defeats herself on a bad day, but Capriati ripped through the draw like some kind of Jersey Girl hurricane, leaving shell-shocked opponents quivering in her wake. She whipped Seles and made Davenport look like an All-American has-been en route to the finals, where Hingis was waiting.
Now, Hingis is the smartest player in tennis, the world number one, a former teenage phenom herself. She can hit just about every shot and outthink any opponent, and she had never lost to Capriati. But Capriati had the look in her eyes that every athlete knows: I will die on this court rather than lose. Hingis didn't have a prayer.
After having beaten Venus and Serena, she figured that was enough for one tournament, and she bowed out gracefully in a 6-4, 6-3 romp that was the Capriati show from start to finish. When it was all over, Capriati jumped in the air like a little kid, and everyone had flashbacks of the exuberant kid she had been, way back in the day when innocence ruled, Napoleon was "the little dead dude," and the future was ahead of her. Maybe it still is.
Copyright © 2001, The Oberlin Review.
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