Jennifer Capriati: Wimbledon comeback

At 14, Jennifer Capriati was a millionaire tennis sensation. At 16 she was a drug-user, shoplifter and binge-eater. Now she's 24, and could win Wimbledon
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Of all the photographs of sporting idols down on their luck – from the Olympic champion Jesse Owens racing against horses, to doorman Joe Louis gratefully pocketing dollar tips outside a Las Vegas casino, to a drug-addicted, grotesquely bloated Diego Maradona, to Sebastian Coe electioneering for the Conservative Party – none is quite as sad as the one taken seven years ago, in Coral Gables, Florida, by the Dade County Police Department.

It featured a lumpen, sullen Jennifer Capriati, the former tennis prodigy, who in 1990 had reached the semi-final of the French Open aged 14 years and two months; who weeks later became the youngest player ever seeded at Wimbledon; who, the following summer, sensationally, beat the defending champion, Martina Navratilova, in the Wimbledon quarter-final.

A lumpen, sullen Jennifer Capriati, who in 1990 had been hailed as America's sweetheart, the new Chrissie Evert, the embodiment of what can happen when a chap has the good sense to emigrate to the Land of Opportunity – in this instance her father Stefano Capriati, who left Milan for New York in his early twenties.

A lumpen, sullen Jennifer Capriati, who had once been so bubbly, so guileless, so eminently quotable. While in Paris for that French Open 11 years ago she was taken to see Napoleon's tomb. "Is that where that little dead dude's buried?" she asked, charming the socks off the pursuing media posse. The Independent's tennis correspondent, John Roberts, remembers her as "a breath of fresh air".

By May 1994, however, the air had turned stale. Quite literally, in fact, for she was found in a cheap, malodorous motel room in possession of cannabis, and one of the two young men who were arrested with her ungallantly told police that she had also been smoking crack cocaine.

American police mug-shots never exactly flatter their subjects – contriving even to make Hugh Grant look seedy – but in Capriati's case (case 94-9819, to be precise) the camera spoke eloquently and accurately. She looked puffy, dead-eyed, like one of life's losers. Here, it seemed, was an almost biblical parable of fabulous gifts tossed to the four winds. For not only had Capriati sunken into a drugs hell (which is what possession of cannabis amounts to if you're Ann Widdecombe or the Dade County Police Department), she was also binge-eating, drinking heavily, painting her fingernails black (very un-Chrissie Evert) and getting kicks from shop-lifting.

At 14, she was sponsored by Ray Ban, Rolex, Elizabeth Arden skincare, Gatorade sports drinks and Prince racquets to the tune of about £10m. At 16, she was caught pinching an imitation silver ring from a shopping mall in Tampa, Florida. Her corporate sponsors were quick to disown her.

Of course, binge-eating, heavy drinking, experimenting with drugs and shop-lifting are not unknown adolescent traits (in 1977 I was myself caught bang to rights by a store detective at Boots in Chapel Street, Southport with an unpaid-for Twix in my pocket). But this was more than teenage rebellion. Capriati was kindling, with a flame-thrower, a teenage lost to tennis. And at the same time she had caved in under the intolerable burden of expectation to become a psychological basket case, even to the point of contemplating suicide. "When I looked in the mirror," she later recalled, "I was so ugly and fat I just wanted to kill myself, really. Mentally, I'd just lost it. I wasn't happy with myself, my tennis, my life, my coaches, my friends."

The Dade County mug-shot represented the nadir in this spectacular fall from grace. But now we know it was not a fall so much as a bungee-jump. Capriati, as precociously gifted in her sport as her contemporary Tiger Woods was in his, has bounced back as dramatically as she plummeted, finally realising all the childhood promise she seemed to have squandered.

In January this year she won her first Grand Slam event, the Australian Open, defeating the world number one, Martina Hingis, in the final. Earlier this month she added the French Open title, winning 12-10 in an epic deciding set. That terrible mug-shot will never quite be wiped from the memory banks, but nor will it ever again be the image of Capriati that springs most readily to mind. Not after seeing her and her parents, who are divorced but apparently still amicable, beside the court in Paris unable to contain their euphoria.

Capriati's success is already the sporting story of the year, and if she wins Wimbledon – which starts on Monday – to carry off the most prestigious of the game's four major tournaments, it will start to look like the sporting story of the decade.

Only three other women have won the Grand Slam of Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. Maureen Connolly did it in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970, and Steffi Graf in 1988. Not even Billie-Jean King or Martina Navratilova managed it, and the chances are that Capriati won't, either. But that she is half-way there represents, if not a miracle, then a thrilling manifestation of that perennial favourite, the tale of the Comeback Kid. Inevitably, Hollywood suits are circling. Drew Barrymore plays Jennifer Capriati? What a story of redemption that would be.

Capriati's story begins, like so many tennis stories, with a pushy father. Stefano was a former boxer and film stuntman who arrived in America determined to better himself. Her mother, Denise, was a Pan-Am stewardess who shared Stefano's upwardly-mobile aspirations. They joined a Long Island tennis club where Stefano, a self-taught player, became a coach. And when Denise became pregnant, in the summer of 1975, he used to encourage people to pat her stomach, saying "Feel! We have produced a future tennis champion!"

Jennifer was born in March 1976. As soon as she could crawl Stefano encouraged her to roam beside the tennis courts to "get the feel of the balls". As soon as she could stand he put a racquet in her hands.

And when she was three she could sustain a 100-stroke rally. In California, at exactly the same time, in exactly the same obsessive way, Vietnam veteran Earl Woods was raising his boy Tiger to be a champion golfer. But Tiger would endure less pain on his journey to the top.

In those early years, however, Stefano's 15-year plan seemed to be working like a dream. The family moved to Florida, where Jennifer was enrolled in the tennis school run by Chris Evert's father, Jimmy. Jimmy Evert knew a thing or two about gifted kids with tennis racquets, and he knew that Jennifer was special. By the time she was 10 there was hardly an adult in town who could beat her, so Stefano moved her again, to the Harry Hopman tennis academy near Tampa.

The academy, recognising a good investment, happily covered the family's accommodation and living expenses. But Stefano couldn't wait. When Jennifer was 12 he threatened to sue the tennis authorities for refusing to relax the rule prohibiting a child from turning professional until the age of 14. Eventually, he got his way. Capriati played in her first professional tournament, at the genteel Polo Club in Boca Raton, Florida, when she was still 13. She coped admirably with the media attention – John Roberts recalls her chirpily announcing her own press conferences. "Jennifer Capriati in the interview room," she would call through the public address system. Nor did she disappoint on court, storming through to the final where she lost to Gabriela Sabatini.

It is difficult to pinpoint where decline set in. Roberts thinks the catalyst may have been the semi-final of the 1991 US Open, a marvellous, ding-dong match which she eventually lost to Monica Seles. "She felt that loss acutely. I think she felt she had let people down," he says. Certainly, it was around that time that the descent began. She won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, but she was already overweight and clearly unhappy, and in due course rejected completely the sport that had been her life. Between mid-1994 and early 1996, her misery compounded by her parents' divorce, she played only one game of professional tennis.

But gradually the resentment subsided. She received counselling – and, like so many American psychotherapees, continues to talk in unashamed shrink-speak, saying that she prefers not to contemplate the past or the future but to "stay in the now". She started playing tennis again. She lost weight. She hauled herself back into the world top 100. Having dispensed with the coaching services of her father, she reinstated him. And Stefano, too, has mellowed. "We stay with our feet on the ground now," he says. "What makes me happy is when I really see Jennifer happy. Only parents know when there is a bright smile for real or a bright smile for a photo-shoot. Now her smile is for real."

As for Capriati herself, the only thing missing in her life, she says, is "a Prince Charming". Hollywood, you can be sure, will supply one.