What ever happened to Jennifer Capriati?

By Mike Dickson for the Daily Mail

Jennifer Capriati poses with Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka before the 2012 US Open final. Photo / Getty
Jennifer Capriati poses with Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka before the 2012 US Open final. Photo / Getty

Jennifer Capriati turns 40 tomorrow, a sobering thought for people who remember arguably the greatest wonderkid of any mainstream sport.

Twenty seven years have elapsed since she graced the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine - headline: 'And she's only 13! - a hallowed status symbol for any athlete in America.

Yet there has been no happy ending for the adolescent phenomenon. Instead the cover girl became the poster child for the dangers of having too much of everything forced upon someone so young.

Capriati's is a tale filled with pathos, one of a likeable and extremely talented individual pulled in every direction, while hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with it.

Astonishingly good at 14, she went spectacularly off the rails before coming back to win three Grand Slams and reach world number one, before in 2004 she succumbed to injuries.

Thereafter she found trouble again. Aside from the trophies there have been highly publicised brushes with the law, battles with depression and a drugs overdose.

Along with the memories of a once outstanding player, it could be argued her main legacy are the age regulations in women's tennis trying to prevent other girls from experiencing the same burnout.

Meanwhile Capriati is largely cut adrift from the sport that made her globally famous. She is so detached that she does not even have an agent or management representative.
Home for her is Singer Island, a three mile strip of land 60 miles north of Miami, and just across a bridge from mainland Palm Beach, the golf mecca where the likes of Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood have homes.

She lives in a plush block of apartments attached to a five star hotel, with views over a private beach and the Atlantic.

The island is a haven for those seeking refuge from America's harsh winters elsewhere. This weekend the area could be found bustling with well-heeled families enjoying the Easter holidays, but for more than half the year it is largely deserted.

From April onwards, storm shields cover the windows of apartments in the smart blocks that dot the shoreline as the majority of residents head back north for the summer and autumn.

According to one local resident, Capriati is seen at all times of year here in this exclusive enclave. Her local grocery store is frequented by Venus Williams, another resident of the locality.

Whatever else has happened in her life, Capriati must have looked after her money to live in such a place.

Few people in tennis know anything of what she does now, having to rely on that very modern prism of Twitter to glean her thoughts.

Her tweets portray a mix of optimism, frustration, fragility, sharp observations and a surprising interest in Republican politics.

Most are nothing to do with tennis, but she emerged on the social media site this month to drop a few truth bombs about Maria Sharapova's doping confession.

"If medically necessary an exemption should be requested and approved. If not crucial then had no business taking. It's not a vitamin," was among them.

In person she has hardly engaged with the sport in recent years. She had attended a former world number ones' gathering at Wimbledon three years ago, and was also spotted at the US Open later in the year.

But she has retreated since, and inquiries about her among American tennis folk usually meet with a blank look.

However, one source close to her reveals that last year she began a serious but secretive attempt at a comeback, and went into training at Chris Evert's academy in Boca Raton.

The idea seemed to be to play doubles or even singles on the main circuit - something she might well be capable of if fit - or at least some exhibition or team tennis matches.

This, however, appears to have been thwarted by yet more problems with her shoulder, followed the crushing blow of losing her father and inspiration Stefano last May, after a battle with cancer.

The latter is evidently a matter of raw sadness, and she suggested to her Twitter followers in December that he had made his presence known to her.

The festive season was obviously difficult: "I have never wanted Christmas to be over so fast. It can't go by quickly enough," she admitted.

Struggles with her shoulder have been a source of huge frustration and angst, and continue to be, judging by two recent posts.

She explained "My opinions are strong because I had what I loved to do most taken from me through pain and injury. It's devastating to stop when at the top."

And of her tennis regrets she said: "I can't believe the doctors could never fix my shoulder...can't believe it."

It would have been fascinating to see how any comeback played out, for few players have ever struck a tennis ball with such exquisitely controlled violence.

Many in the game would have been happy to see her return, for she was a popular figure among her peers. Even Steffi Graf, not known for trying to be friendly with her rivals, used to speak in fond terms of the Floridian.

What is for certain is that hers was one of the most extraordinary careers in the sport's history.

It was Stefano, a former professional footballer and stuntman, who was the driving force, and it is hard to understate just how good his daughter was at a young age.

A little remembered fact is that the first act of her senior career, aged 13, was to kill off the Wightman Cup, the traditional match between Great Britain's women and the USA. She played Clare Wood, a solid professional and top 100 player, and beat her 6-0 6-0 in 33 minutes. 'A whirlwind' was how Wood described it.

Six months later she made her main debut, playing in the tour event at Boca Raton, where she reached the final. Just short of her 14th birthday the WTA Tour, desperate for a young American star to replace the retiring Evert, bent their own rules to allow it, and were to do so again to give her early exposure.

When she turned up at the Italian Open in Rome, land of her forefathers (and some key sponsors), it was like Beatlemania. Then she made the French Open semi-finals on her Grand Slam debut.

Jennifer Capriati in action during the 2004 US Open. Photo /Getty
Jennifer Capriati in action during the 2004 US Open. Photo /Getty

Possessing a power game that was unusual for the time, eight months after her fourteenth birthday she became the youngest ever player to make the top ten.

An Olympic gold medal was won in 1992, but the enjoyment was starting to wear thin.

Suffocated by the attention and demands on her - an endorsement by Oil of Olay coincided with an unfortunate outbreak of adolescent spots - Capriati went into teen rebel mode.

Desperate for normality, she started to dress in black and seek friends outside of tennis. After taking a break from the sport in 1993 she was caught in possession of marijuana and arrested for shoplifting a ring - she has always insisted it was an act of mere forgetfulness.

For the rest of the nineties she drifted in and out of tennis before mounting a brilliant comeback, seeing her talent go into full bloom.

Three Grand Slams were won at the start of the decade and in October 2001 she triumphantly ascended to the world number one position.

Success, however, was relatively shortlived, and soon injuries began to set in, particularly in the shoulder which propelled her groundstrokes. By late 2004 it was over.

As for many athletes, the loss of a playing career can be extremely difficult to deal with, but she found it more traumatic than most.

In a very rare interview in 2007 she gave a harrowing account of how her world had fallen apart. Speaking of her depression to the New York Daily News she mentioned that "I can't even stand my own skin."

In 2010 she was admitted to hospital after a drugs overdose, which her family was forced to deny was a suicide attempt, but an accident involving prescription drugs.

In 2012 there was the happier occurrence of being elected to the Tennis Hall of Fame, but the following year she was arrested on charges of battery and stalking, following complaints by her boyfriend of the time.

The charges were eventually dropped on condition that she perform thirty hours of community service and undergo four hours of anger management.

These days she seems to channel any rage into current affairs. Back to Twitter: "The world is almost falling apart I just don't get it. Middle East is in utter chaos. Middle class is almost broken."

And she is no fan of Barack Obama: "People blame the Republicans? How about one man who doesn't like the country and wanted to 'fundamentally' transform it?"

Capriati still hints that she may try a comeback, but she and the tennis world seem reluctant to reach out to each other, which is a shame.

She is said, however, to have a loyal circle of friends. Attempts to speak to her through one of them proved fruitless.

Even today you see echoes of the situation that once faced her. More enlightened parents try to ensure some normality in their offspring at a delicate age, while at the same time attempting to nurture success in a ferociously competitive world. It is a very difficult balance to strike.

Playing restrictions on young teenage players stem from her experiences. As Jennifer Capriati notches up her fortieth birthday you hope for her that the coming years bring a seemingly elusive contentment.

- Daily Mail

- Daily Mail

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