Tennis: Capriati now a woman of substance

Ronald Atkin discovers the latest comeback looks like the real thing
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THE BURN-OUT was one of the most spectacular in sport as Jennifer Capriati, teenage darling of tennis, went down in flames, arrested for possession of drugs, charged with shoplifting. That there could be a way back from this high-level self-immolation, looked impossible but the football field in Barcelona has not been the sole stage for a small miracle in the past few days. Out on the clay of Roland Garros Capriati has been fashioning her own miracle, the return ticket from oblivion.

Victory at Strasbourg on the eve of the French Open was her first tournament success in six long years. It was followed by her first win at Roland Garros, also for six years, then progress into the fourth round yesterday by defeating Silvia Farina when the Italian retired trailing 6-2 4-0. Glory be, the kid is on a roll. She is delighted and doesn't care who knows it because the view from the bottom of the pit was not pretty.

Since the collapse of her career towards the end of 1993 Capriati has twice attempted comebacks. Both fizzled out. This time, supported by the coaching skills of former touring pro Harold Solomon, she looks to have got it right.

At the request of her father and on-going mentor, Stefano, Solomon teamed up with the 23-year-old Capriati just before the Key Biscayne tournament in March. Despite running into, and losing to, big names like Steffi Graf, Anna Kournikova and Serena Williams in successive events, the tide was on the turn. She led Serena 5-1 in Berlin and has not lost since then. Shining brightly alongside confidence is maturity, an asset not previously discernible.

"I needed all that time out to find my way again, to do it the right way this time," she said, breaking off our chat occasionally to accept congratulations from passers-by in the players' lounge at Roland Garros. "I have been making my own journey, travelling my own road, and since you are the only one who can figure out your own life a lot of the credit has to go to me." She grinned and patted herself smartly on the back.

"But even now I don't want to make any big deal out of this comeback. You take a step forward, the hype starts up again and the danger is what happened before. I started to go backwards and crawled into my hole where I felt comfortable and safe. But now I feel I want to come out and stay out because out there is more of everything. More of my family, people I love."

She cheerfully acknowledges it was a close-run thing. "Recently there were a few times when I thought, 'This is it. One more first-round loss and I quit'. But if I had given up, that would have been like giving my life away. When I got my new coach I thought this could be an opportunity and I should take advantage. I had tried everything else and nothing was working."

The wisdom of Solomon was immediately applied to the anomaly that Capriati's brilliant form on the practice court was not being transferred into the action that counted. A pat on the back goes to Solly, too, for changing that. "But it has not been easy because Jennifer fell to 115 in the world," he said. "I talked to her about fighting and playing smarter tennis, trying to be as positive as possible, and she has listened. She has matured a lot as a human being and though there are still some things to work on I think Jennifer is capable of top 10 tennis again." She is now ranked 53.

There is a fresh, purposeful air to Capriati these days. Gone is the glamour child of the early Nineties, at 14 years two months the French Open's youngest semi-finalist. The soft pastel colours and unobtrusive make-up are no more. Now the colours, like the face and the attitude, are harder. Apart from her racket, Jennifer is without a sponsor, but speed around the court and a higher level of fitness are what concern her more than logos right now. "You have to be in great shape nowadays. Look at the Williams sisters. To keep up with people like that you need more than just talent. But what I need to remember is that this is just a game, a sport I am involved in, and I have to keep it in that perspective. Me winning or losing is not going to make a difference to world peace, is it? Before, I let it become much more than that."

So much more, in fact, that her own break-up fractured her parents' marriage. Now she lives in Florida with her father and brother Steven but a family reunion is planned for Wimbledon. "We are going to rent a big house like we used to and all be together again," she said. And that is a prospect which produces Jennifer Capriati's biggest smile of all.