Capriati rallies after hitting rock bottom

John Roberts on next week's Paris match for a former tennis prodigy
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It is to be hoped that Jennifer Capriati and her parents prove to be wiser, not merely older, when the 19-year-old former prodigy exhumes her career in Paris next week.

"I feel great, really excited," Capriati said yesterday. "I've been working with my dad in Tampa and really feel like I'm ready to play." Those words, which at first appeared to be a contradiction in terms, could represent a major breakthrough in personal relationships.

Not long ago, working with her father, Stefano - or even being in the same locality - was likely to make Jennifer feel ready to do anything but play tennis.

Stefano Capriati's attempt to combine the roles of father and coach, following the examples of Peter Graf with Steffi and Karolj Seles with Monica, foundered when his daughter began to reason that there ought to be more to her young life than hitting tennis balls.

By then, of course, she was a major earner - nearly $1.5m (pounds 1m) in prize- money and countless millions more from sponsorships and endorsements - and what had started as fun had become a commercial treadmill.

The forlorn hope that Jennifer would be be able to gain experience without undue pressure - "playing quiet tennis" - which Stefano had expressed after his precocious daughter had swept to the final of her first professional tournament, a fortnight before her 14th birthday, was to haunt him.

Describing, in 1994, the despair which led her to a drugs rehabilitation centre at the age of 18, the Olympic champion said: "I just wanted to kill myself, really." She spoke of nightmares after losing a third-set tie-break against Seles in the semi-finals of the 1991 United States Open and of incessant weeping after losing to Leila Meskhi, of Georgia, in the first round of the 1993 US Open.

Since then, Capriati has played only one match, which she lost against Anke Huber, of Germany, in three sets in Philadelphia in November 1994.

The Capriati experience - "I burned out; I really was not happy with myself, my tennis, my life, my parents, my coaches, my friends" - prompted the sport's governing body to revise the age eligibility rules.

A graduated scale was introduced, limiting the number and quality of events open to 14 and 15-year-olds. By next year, no player under 16 will be allowed on the women's tour.

The Corel WTA Tour naturally expressed delight at Capriati's impending return, "more great news for women's tennis" to set alongside their new sponsor, the successful rehabilitation of Seles and the number of emerging young players.

Another healthy sign is Seles's frankness about her weight problems, which may prevent other players from taking extreme measures when their fitness regimens fail to transform them into Kate Moss.

Capriati says she is "taking things one step at a time", and Paris seems as suitable a place as any to set forth again, given her apparent willingness to leave the Florida sunshine.

It was during the 1990 French Open that the 14-year-old Capriati made her initial impact, becoming the youngest Grand Slam semi-finalist in history.

Her first visit to Paris was recorded by ESPN, the American sports channel, whose crew followed Capriati on shopping sprees and sightseeing tours. At Notre Dame, apparently, she wondered why there was no football field. Then her brother, Stephen, wanted to know what Les Invalides was, and was told that Napoleon was buried there.

"Napoleon?''

"You know," Jennifer said, "he's the little dead dude.''

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