Monica Seles, Steffi Graf,Arantxa Sanchez... and Jennifer Capriati. Hear her name and weep. Served up at 13, the force-fed, custom-made, finished article, she goes down as the ultimate health warning to anyone who dreams of their child as a champ and chooses the wrong hothouse. Today, as tennis's best women do battle for the US Open title, Michael Mewshaw investigates a school for scandal
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In a sport as capital intensive as tennis, there still exists a surprising streak of socialism. Most European countries fund national federations which, in turn, finance training centres that house, coach and theoretically educate promising young players until they're fit to survive the rigours of the professional circuit. But in the United States, land of free enterprise, the preference is for privately owned and operated junior academies where families pay fees of more than pounds 20,000 a year to have their kids taught the fine points of the game while pursuing their high school studies. Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and many others passed part of their youth in these ports of convenience.

In a sense, then, as the US Open draws to a close this weekend, the competition will be as much between opposing ideologies as between players. Among the top-ranking female players, for example, Steffi Graf was nurtured by the German national junior programme, while Monica Seles, born in the former Yugoslavia, was coached in America at Nick Bolletieri's academy in Sarasota, Florida, between the ages of 12 and 16.

Of course, no British competitors survived the early rounds. But, with funds now available from the national lottery and John Major talking of "schools of excellence", Britain may soon boast its own hot-shot youngsters developed in hot-house specialist schools.

If such facilities become available, however, parents should spare a moment to recall the sad saga of Jennifer Capriati. Described as a "phenomenon", a "can't miss" prospect, she turned professional at 13 and immediately became a millionaire with massive endorsement contracts. In 1991, aged 16, she was a Wimbledon semi-finalist, a year later, she was an Olympic gold medallist. But at 18 she was arrested for shoplifting, spent time in a drug rehabilitation centre, was arrested again three months later in a Florida motel room full of teenage dopers, had her police mug shot, complete with nose-ring and glazed eyes, splashed around the world, and returned to the rehabilitation centre. In the past two years, she has played one match.

Clucking about the poor girl's personal tragedy, her family problems and adolescent growing pains complicated by publicity, competitive pressures and the corrupting influence of money, the tennis community accepted little responsibility for what had befallen its rising star. Likewise Saddlebrook Resort, a 600-acre luxury holiday complex in Tampa on Florida's Gulf Coast, where Jennifer trained, and Palmer Academy, the high school attached to it where she attended classes between tournaments and faxed her homework when she was on the road. Both institutions (they have now severed links) took pains to tell the press that Capriati had dropped out before her troubles.

But a closer look suggests that Capriati's experience might have been the rule rather than the exception, and was at least partly the result of a dubious regime. While her classmates didn't receive the same high- profile publicity or cornucopia of cash, more than a few of them suffered similar unhappiness.

Marc Levin, a former pupil at the Palmer Academy who is now enrolled in a programme for educational underachievers in Utah, arrives for an interview accompanied by a psychologist. He wears Nike shoes, a lone reminder of the game "I totally loved". All but lost in baggy jeans, at 17 Marc has a jailbird's pallor and tattoos on his hands and arms. His eyes must have seen an awful lot, but they show nothing. His parents say he's done so much dope he believes his vision has been affected.

Marc describes his life at Saddlebrook and the Palmer Academy, where he enrolled at 14, and how he drifted with street people, stole from his family and wound up in a juvenile detention centre. The psychologist presses Marc to explain what he expected at Palmer.

"I expected to be supervised and educated," he says. "The staff was pretty much turning a blind eye to whatever was going on. There were no parent figures. So I wanted to be like the older boys - tougher. I think if it wasn't for that place I wouldn't be having the problems I have today. Nothing good came out of it."

The extent to which Palmer Academy bears responsibility for Marc, and for Jennifer Capriati, is difficult to judge - partly because its owner, Norman Palmer, refuses to comment. He also forbids employees from answering questions. After missing one appointment, he responded to repeated requests for an interview by referring the matter to his lawyer. Calls to his lawyer - his current lawyer, that is; his previous lawyer sued him for non-payment - failed to break the silence. But court records and interviews with former employees, current and former students and their parents present a troubling picture.

A hands-on operation run by Norman Palmer and his wife, Jo, the Academy opened in the late Seventies as the scholastic annexe to Harry Hopman's International Tennis Center at the Bardmoor resort, near Tampa. After the death of Hopman, the celebrated Australian Davis Cup coach who had trained Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver and John Newcombe, the programme moved to Saddlebrook resort nearby. Palmer went too, and provided high school courses geared to juniors whose parents had deep pockets. For $1,000 (pounds 700) a week, students received room and board, group tennis lessons, school classes time-tabled to permit hours of uninterrupted practice, and access to the four-star facilities at Saddlebrook, where Pete Sampras still trains. Equipment, private lessons, transport and tournament fees were extra and could raise the annual cost to more than $50,000. In addition to affluent Americans, the Academy attracted South Americans, Europeans and Japanese. While a few highly ranked players attended Palmer free, some foreigners paid double the standard rate.

However, arguments developed between Palmer and Thomas Dempsey, who owns Saddleworth, over money and the use of facilities. Unable to resolve their differences, Palmer agreed to leave, and in June 1992 he notified Saddlebrook that he was taking his school elsewhere and establishing his own junior tennis programme. Tom Dempsey believes that "a lot of the difficulties Mr Palmer has had since he left Saddlebrook are because of financial problems. When things start to go bad financially, people do irrational things. On Wall Street they throw themselves out of windows."

This isn't to say that the Palmer Academy didn't already have problems when it was associated with Saddlebrook, or that Saddlebrook hasn't experienced difficulties since. In 1993, a pupil on a course at Saddlebrook drank himself unconscious and had to be revived by artificial resuscitation. In 1994, a few months before Capriati's arrest, Saddlebrook expelled two pupils who tested positive for drugs. The centre still carries out random tests. But at least Dempsey can claim his operation has a code of conduct and that infractions have been punished.

By contrast, Palmer Academy appears to have been preoccupied by a rising tide of red ink and a flood of litigation. Having bought property in an area of north Tampa which a resident describes as "going downhill fast", Norman Palmer resurfaced six tennis courts and installed half-a-dozen prefabricated buildings, one of which houses his office and an open-plan cluster of chairs and tables where pupils have their lessons. Saddled with nearly $700,000 in mortgages and besieged by creditors, he has been confronted by disgruntled families who claim they didn't receive sufficient notice of Palmer's plans to move. They argue that they had paid their deposits for lessons from Hopman professionals and access to a 600-acre resort, not instruction from new, unknown coaches and lessons conducted in a prefab. A Japanese parent charged Palmer with criminal fraud for failing to refund his $60,000 deposit, but the plaintiff died before the case came to trial.

To complicate matters, the US immigration authorities refused to grant student visas to foreigners because the Academy lacked scholastic accreditation. Then the Internal Revenue Service demanded nearly $430,000 in taxes on unreported income. If the Palmers' son Jared, a player ranked in the top 50 and a member of the US Davis Cup team, hadn't provided an infusion of cash, it seems likely that the business would have gone belly up.

Still, some people were persuaded that the Academy was a high-class operation. When Marc Levin's father met Jo Palmer, he came away convinced the Academy "lived up to the standards of any East Coast boarding school" and was serious about acting in loco parentis to its select group of 50 pupils.

When Marc showed a precocious talent for tennis, the Levins initially looked at the school run by Nick Bolletieri, alma mater of Agassi, Courier and Seles, but thought the living quarters lacked adequate adult supervision. At Rick Macci's Academy, where the rising star Venus Williams currently trains, they had doubts about the local school to which the pupils were bussed each morning. But Palmer struck them as offering precisely the right mix of academic and athletic training, and for the next 18 months, whenever the Levins called the Academy to check on their son, they were assured that "Marc was a nice, pleasant, co-operative kid who was making progress. Everything was wonderful."

But shortly after his 14th birthday, Marc was given alcohol by a member of staff. Plenty of Palmer pupils claim to have tossed back beer or tequila with Sorbi Jahbari, who does triple duty as a cook, calculus teacher and occasional houseparent. Amy Hall, a teenager from Texas, remembers celebrating the night before graduation in 1993 with Jahbari and a final-year student who got falling-down drunk. The following day, the fellow received his diploma with a hangover and a nasty cut on his head.

When Palmer was still based at Saddlebrook resort, kids bought beer from employees of the resort's catering department. Although Tom Dempsey denies this, a former employee swears that "it was common knowledge you could make $25 or $30 selling kids a six-pack of beer. I did that. There was no supervision that I saw. I closed up some nights at 1.30 am and I'd see kids out on their own walking, driving golf carts. I've seen them completely out of their heads."

It goes without saying that teenagers everywhere are apt to drink; adolescence is, after all, an age of experimentation and rebellion. But at Palmer it was often the staff who provided the opportunities. Amy Hall and her mother Carolyn describe a party at the flat of a senior member of the Academy tennis staff. Students got drunk there, then later that same night 17-year-old Amy went out for more drinking with a group of Palmer employees. When she discovered her daughter had got drunk, Mrs Hall said, "I felt betrayed. I entrusted her to them and this happened."

Amy drew a lesson from the experience: "It's harder to say no to adults than to your peers."

Matt Currett, a former Palmer houseparent, maintains that drinking was dealt with responsibly. But, he says, "Rules were different for certain people. It wasn't like you drank and that's it. Better players and national team members were given greater freedom, and that presented problems."

The combination of on-court pressures, haphazard enforcement of rules and flagrant favouritism toward stars "drove kids crazy", according to one former pupil. "Our only release was drinking." In these circumstances, Marc Levin felt "there was nobody on the staff to turn to. Nobody I could really trust."

Small for his age, Marc says he was subjected to a rough rite of passage by older boys. Every day there was a regular free-for-all in which kids slapped each other around. Although this might sound like normal boarding school rough stuff, it takes on a more lurid tinge when Marc claims that a roommate had a 9 mm pistol and another boy kept an ice pick for protection. This certainly wasn't what his parents counted on when they shelled out to send him to Palmer.

Nor did Amy Hall's family get what they reckoned they had paid for. In front of fellow pupils and several pros, a boy named Chihoa Hsia turned on Amy, although she admits she was teasing him. He thrashed her with his tennis racket, beating her legs and buttocks, drawing blood, hitting her so hard on the arm she feared he'd broken it. Yet nobody stepped in. She fled the court sobbing, and when a Palmer employee found her she had to be rushed to a clinic for x-rays. Although no bones were broken, she was badly bruised and battered.

Eventually, Carolyn Hall moved to Florida to be near her daughter. A former teacher herself, she was appalled by what she saw - kids left without adult supervision, frequent teacher absences, constant taunting and intimidation and verbal and emotional abuse. "Everybody was pushed to the point of rage," she recalls. "Younger boys as well as girls were harassed by older boys. They all talked like they were in a locker-room."

And so did some of the tennis coaches. One pro pretended to masturbate on players whose performance displeased him. Amy Hall remembers a coach who joked to girls, "The bigger the rump, the better the hump."

"There were always sexual comments," she says. "It was the general tone." On a trip to one tournament, a coach quizzed girls about their sex lives and hooted at anybody who said she was a virgin. Another coach joked about looking at girls' breasts as they leaned down for low balls.

At times, girls endured more than verbal abuse. In 1994, a boy knocked Amy Hall to the floor and pantomimed intercourse with her. Another boy was in the room, but didn't intervene. Because the boy who attacked her was a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, Amy felt sorry for him and didn't want to press charges or name him publicly, but she provided a list of sources who confirmed the story.

Furthermore, according to more than a dozen sources, members of the Palmer staff - including teachers and coaches - had sex with pupils. "This was so commonly known," says one houseparent, "it would be surprising if members of the faculty and administration didn't know." Under US law, it is a criminal offence for an adult to have sex with anyone under the age of 18 who is subject to his or her direct authority, and, in Florida, schools are required to investigate reports or rumours of teachers physically or sexually abusing students.

Alan Ma, Palmer's head pro and the only current employee to break the boss's embargo and grant an interview, acknowledges that he has heard of affairs between adults and students. "I told Mr Palmer about these sexual relationships," says Ma. "What he does is another thing. What bothers me is I don't feel I have enough power." As a result, Ma adds, "I try to stay away from that business. I try to deal with things on court and with tennis."

Viewed through that narrow prism, Palmer has succeeded. After five hours of daily practice most players improve, and courtside banners at the Academy bear the names of junior champions who trained there. Scott Humphries, who turned pro this summer, won Junior Wimbledon in 1994, and other alumni have won tennis scholarships to universities. But the words of one pupil raise questions about the high price of this success: "The Academy either turns you into a champion or into a misfit with a mohawk haircut and ten earrings."

Michael and Jane Levin are more emphatic about the matter. Mrs Levin says, "I always assumed from what I heard and what I knew about child prodigies that Capriati was headed for trouble. I thought she was too indulged, had too many cars and so forth. I now see it wasn't Jennifer or her family's fault. It was the tennis academy's."

Mr Levin says: "Given what we know now we wouldn't send Marc to Palmer. I would have no trust or faith in any tennis academy."

Ann Thomas, a sports psychologist who has worked on a consulting basis at Palmer, Saddlebrook and junior programmes throughout Florida, brings more experience and objectivity to the subject. She says, "For some kids, an academy can work. For some, it's better to stay home and hire a coach. Parents tell me they prefer to send their kids to a tennis academy to escape the school system or the usual teenage vices - drugs, drinking and sex. But there's no escape. A tennis academy is an artificial environment. It magnifies problems, and when it really goes wrong, it can be like Lord of the Flies, with kids trapped on an island turning into savages."