Life on the fault line

The new generation of women's tennis stars beware the Capriati syndrome; Simon O'Hagan in Paris reports on the young ones with lessons to learn
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IT WAS NOT until Jennifer Capriati turned up in the players' box the day after she had announced her withdrawal from the women's indoor tournament in Paris last week that those of us who had doubted her word began to think again.

Maybe she really was injured when, on Tuesday evening, she pulled out only a couple of hours before she was due back on court for the first time in 15 months. The vague and indifferent way in which she had handled her press conference, skirting the issue of her injury and sounding slightly surprised when somebody asked exactly what was wrong with her, positively invited suspicion.

Standing to one side was her father and coach, Stefano Capriati, trying not to draw attention to himself as he gestured to his daughter to go easy on the details. When, with due solemnity, Kathy Martin, the Women's Tour Association physiotherapist, followed the 19-year-old American into the interviewee's chair, the effect was not what was intended: it made the whole episode seem less convincing, not more. Observant members of the press corps then noticed that Martin pointed to her left side in explaining an injury which Capriati had said she had suffered to her right.

Various theories were quickly doing the rounds of the Stade de Coubertin, a sleek, modern complex in the south-west of the city, and they were not just confined to journalists. Officials, too, were joining in as speculation mounted over what might have been the real reason for Capriati's withdrawal.

If Capriati had suffered a loss of nerve, then that would perhaps have been understandable. Her very presence was a reminder of what life on the international tennis circuit can do to those too young to know how to handle it.

Thirteen when she played her first professional tournament, a Grand Slam semi-finalist at 14, Capriati was a prodigy of a higher order even than Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, two Americans of an earlier generation who had hit the top while still dangerously young and suffered for it. When she dropped out of the game two and a half years ago, and then got into trouble with drugs, Capriati's life began to read like a bad script. Except it was all too real to her.

After one attempt at a comeback, in November 1994, had fizzled out, it was always going to require a lot of resolve to try again. Jim Fuhse, director of public relations for the WTA and a close friend of Capriati, believed she had it. "I've noticed such a difference in her demeanour in the last few weeks," he said. "She's really got things together now. This story is not unusual, you know. A lot of kids go through what she went through. They just don't live their lives in the spotlight. Sure, Jennifer's got a rebellious streak. She has her own mind . . ."

That was before Capriati was due to go on court against the Belgian Sabine Appelmans, and when she pulled out most people expected her to up and leave for her Florida home. That she stayed on, avoiding interviews and watching the tennis, suggested that she was genuine in wanting to see if her pulled muscle could heal in time for her to play in a tournament in Essen next week. Beau Delafield, a representative of her agent, IMG, was also with her. Asked if there was anything more to Capriati's withdrawal than was being let on, he said: "Absolutely not. She 100 per cent wanted to play."

While Capriati stutters towards her return - it was announced on Friday that she had received a wild card to play in Essen - the generation that has followed her is now as much the focus of attention. Could Martina Hingis ever imagine what happened to Jennifer Capriati happening to her? "I don't think so," she said. "I don't really know her or her family. All I know is that I am Martina Hingis, not Jennifer Capriati."

Hingis is sitting up straight in the players' lounge at the Stade de Coubertin, her hands folded on her lap. She is poised and natural and smiles a lot, and at 15 seems on very remote terms indeed with adolescent angst, still less the sort of pressures that are supposed to go with being a youthful star of international sport. As the first teenage wonder to come along since Capriati, the Czech-born Swiss girl, ranked 16 in the world, is watched and fretted over in case she might suddenly suffer an attack of the Jennifers. But it hasn't happened, and nobody really expects it to. "I've been amazed at how quickly Martina has matured," Fuhse said.

Yet in some ways Hingis has as much right to go off the rails as Capriati had. Her mother, Melanie, called her Martina after Martina Navratilova. She stuck a racket in her daughter's hand when she was only two. She has always been her coach. A few weeks after her 14th birthday, Martina was being paraded at a press conference in Frankfurt organised by her new sponsors, Sergio Tacchini. "It wasn't too bad," she said. "I had somebody helping with the translation."

Hingis's English is still halting, and that may be in her favour. Iva Majoli, the 18-year-old Croatian who is ranked No 4 in the world, thinks there is more expected of Americans and that the key to coping is to build up experience gradually. Even so, Hingis said she was conscious of the need to keep earning the money that will enable her and her mother to stay on the road. "You can't play tennis for 20 years."

Like Hingis, Majoli is coming through her teens seemingly unscathed - a quick-witted, aware young person who, from the age of 12, spent five years at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida but never forgot her homeland because pictures of the war there were constantly on television in the family's apartment in Sarasota. "I cried whenever that happened," Majoli said, nursing a cold after she and Hingis had just come off court from a doubles.

The family has now moved back to Zagreb and Majoli is happy about that. "Life there is a bit like Italy. People go out altogether. In Florida you had to get in the car to go anywhere. All you could do was to go to malls. But there was Disneyland. I think the important thing is not to let success go to your head. If you start getting cocky no one will talk to you."

While Hingis's gentler game still occasionally comes unstuck - she was surprisingly beaten in Paris by the Italian Silvia Farina - Majoli's combination of flair and athleticism has taken her to the brink of high achievement. She beat Monica Seles in Tokyo earlier this month, and along with the 19-year-old Chanda Rubin of the United States is clearly the best of the generation that has yet to win any Grand Slam tournaments.

Women's tennis has not had the best of luck in recent years. You could certainly lay some of the blame for the Capriati debacle at the doors of the WTA, but not Steffi Graf's problems with her father or the stabbing of Seles. As Seles once again begins to dominate and retirement looms ever larger over Graf's career, Majoli, Hingis and Rubin are suddenly very important to the future of the game.

From the WTA headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, Anne Worcester, the organisation's chief executive officer, would like to think that the era of teenage burn-out is gone for good. Just before Capriati dropped out the WTA set up the age eligibility commission whose recommendations led to new guidelines which restricts the number of tournaments girls can play until they are 18.

"The average age of the top 10 is now 23," Worcester noted in a that's- more-like-it tone. "A major sponsor is going to be less interested in a junior playing in a futures tournament than if they were in Grand Slams.

The WTA is trying to promote a much greater sense of togetherness on the tour. Groups of players are being organised into non-tennis activities. There is a "mentor programme" under discussion, whereby an older player takes a younger one under their wing. It's all designed to alleviate what Worcester calls "the stresses" of being a teenage player.

The shadow of Capriati can never quite be removed. Letting her into big- time tennis so young was "a huge mistake", Worcester said. She doesn't want any more of them.