Tennis: Experts examine problem of too much too soon: It is four years tomorrow since Jennifer Capriati became a pro. Now a commission is investigating 'burn-out'. John Roberts reports

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The Independent Online
SHE was fun. Liberated from token school work, she precociously blazed her way past opponents and playfully took the microphone to announce her arrival in the interview room. 'If there is a god of tennis,' Ted Tinling, the sage of the women's game, pronounced, 'he's given Jennifer Capriati to America.'

Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of Capriati's professional debut at the Polo Club, Boca Raton, Florida, 23 days before her 14th birthday. She is currently back at school, trying to salvage a semblance of normality. Though not confirmed as a victim of the premature retirement condition known as 'burn-out', she has certainly been scorched.

If there is a god of tennis, perhaps he will oversee the deliberations of a commission which is about to study the evidence of stress on young female tennis players and consider the advisability of raising the minimum age for competing on the tour.

The age eligibility commission, which will include experts in sports psychology, medicine, orthopaedics, paediatrics and neurology, is scheduled to meet for a 'consensus conference' during the Wimbledon championships. A report will then be submitted to the Women's Tennis Council, which embraces representatives of the players, the tournaments and the International Tennis Federation, during the United States Open in September, after which a decision is due to be taken.

A rule prohibiting players under 16 from major events was abandoned in 1975. Then, in 1986, concern about the problems which had curtailed the careers of Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, in particular, prompted legislation precluding players under 14 from the women's tour. In order to expedite Capriati's arrival, this was amended in 1990 to incorporate the month of a player's 14th birthday.

Stefano Capriati, the player's father, was not satisfied. He contended that his daughter had been ready at 12. 'There would not have been so much fuss,' he said, 'and Jennifer would have had computer points by now.' What she did have before striking her first ball as a professional were long- term tennis clothing and racket contracts estimated to be worth dollars 5m ( pounds 3.47m).

Even as the specialists respond to their invitations to join the commission, new prodigies are being primed for the tour. The most notable are Martina Hingis, a Czech-born Swiss who turns 14 just before the US Open, Venus Williams, a 13-year- old American, and Anna Kournikova, a 12-year-old Russian with whom Williams is based at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Acadamy in Florida.

The problem might be less complex were women's tennis in a healthier state. The search for a new tour sponsor has hardly been helped by the lack of competitive depth in the game, a situation made more conspicuous by the absence of Monica Seles and the inability of several talented players to fulfil their potential.

Though the welfare of future players is at stake, there is no guarantee that the commission will recommend change. Anne Person Worcester, the managing director of the Women's Tennis Council, admits as much at the outset. 'Everybody keeps asking when the age rule is going to be moved to 16,' she said. 'That's totally inaccurate, because it may not be changed at all, and there's certainly no premeditated conclusion here.

'This commission is being assembled to evaluate the appropriateness of the current rule, and they could come back and say it's quite appropriate, based on all the data and the research analysed. We're really not going into this knowing what they're going to come up with. That's what makes it all so interesting.'

Among the criteria the panel are required to meet is experience in dealing with 'elite or professional athletes, preferably female'. The commission will hear testimony from actively interested participants in tennis as well as from specialists unrelated to the sport, such as social scientists.

'The commission will draw conlusions based on these testimonies as well as their own expertise and will write a position paper over the summer and present it to us at the US Open,' Person Worcester said. 'We will then reach a decision, and that decision will include when to put the rule in place - if there is a new rule.'

Capriati's decline from the delightful to the disaffected is a study in itself. Watching 'The Phenom', as she was called by the American media at Boca Raton in 1990, was both exhilarating and uncomfortable. It was difficult not to be dazzled by the prodigy's progress while at the same time expressing misgivings. Had sufficient been learned from past examples?

The previous September, Chris Evert, the product of a more measured tennis era, had confirmed her retirement during the United States Open. Here before us was the latest Evert clone, more resilient, it was hoped, than Austin, Jaeger or another American, Kathy Rinaldi, each of whom had been unable to sustain the momentum of exceptional early promise.

It is worth recounting that while Capriati was advancing to the final of her first tournament, in which she was defeated by Gabriela Sabatini, Monica Seles, aged 16, was a third-round loser in the same event.

Seles, in her second season, was growing taller and experiencing difficulty in making technical adjustments to her game. Three months later, the problem solved, Seles defeated Steffi Graf at the French Open to win the first of her eight Grand Slam titles. On 11 March, 1991, Seles became the youngest ever world No 1, aged 17 years, three months and nine days, ending Graf's record reign of 186 weeks.

A knife attack by a Graf obsessive in Hamburg last April interrupted Seles's career. 'Sometimes I wish I could have waited three or four years to become No 1,' she said recently. 'I would have had a little more time to experience 'normal' things, and to prepare for how to handle myself. But I was very lucky. I had this gift. I couldn't step back from that. I couldn't give somebody else the No 1 ranking and say 'Hold this for a while, I'll be back for it when I'm ready'.'

Capriati took a step back after losing to Leila Meskhi, of the Republic of Georgia, in the first round of last year's US Open. It was the prelude to the unhappy teenager's run for cover. The consensus that the lure of dollars had not allowed her game to graduate from a one-dimensional reliance on hefty ground strokes was less important than the conclusion that she had been denied a normal adolescence.

At Boca Raton in 1990, the promoter, George Liddy, smiled when a Capriati match was scheduled. 'We're calling it happy hour,' he said. As the week evolved, Capriati observed that 'the media is a little out of control'. A summary by Mary Francis, the chief of umpires, also lingers: 'It's obscene, but wonderful.' Subsequent events suggest she was half right.

TRACY AUSTIN

AFTER beating Chris Evert in 1979 to become the youngest player to win the United States Championship, at the age of 16 years and nine months, Tracy Austin reigned as the world No 1 the following year and won the US Open a second time in 1981. By the age of 21, recurring back and neck injuries had put her out of the game. She had won nearly dollars 2m ( pounds 1.38m).

Austin, 31, returned to Grand Slam tennis in January, reaching the second round of the Australian Open. She intends to combine tennis with television commentary. 'Burn-out,' she said, 'to me means you are sick of it, tired of it, you don't feel like doing it any more, like Borg's retirement at 26. I was dying to play tennis, but it was my body that broke down.'

ANDREA JAEGER

IN 1980, Andrea Jaeger became the youngest United States Championship semi- finalist, aged 15 years, five months and one day, having returned to America as the youngest player to be seeded at Wimbledon. She held the distinction for 10 years, until Jennifer Capriati's arrival.

Jaeger rose to No 2 in the world in 1981, then played in two Grand Slam singles finals. In both she lost to Martina Navratilova, at the French Open in 1982 and Wimbledon in 1983. A chronic shoulder injury ended her career in 1984. She had won nearly dollars 1.5m ( pounds 1.04m). Jaeger has since worked in television and runs a foundation for underprivileged children. She says she could have done without the injury but does not regret the tennis.

KATHY RINALDI

HAILED with almost as much hyperbole as her compatriots, Austin and Jaeger, Kathy Rinaldi did not so much burn out as fizzle out. Though absent for six months after breaking her right thumb in 1987, she is still pounding the courts in her 13th season on the tour, having won dollars 1.3m ( pounds 900,000) and married her high school boyfriend, Brad Stunkel.

In 1981, she made the French Open quarter-finals then became the youngest player to win a match at Wimbledon (pre- Capriati), at 14 years and 91 days. Though she was a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 1985 and reached the quarter-finals of the French again in 1986, Rinaldi's three titles are of modest stature: Kyoto (1981), Mahwah (1985) and Little Rock (1986).

JENNIFER CAPRIATI

AT 14, she became the youngest Grand Slam semi-finalist, at the French Open; the youngest player to be seeded, at Wimbledon; and the youngest to win a match at the All England Club. At 15, she defeated Navratilova to become the youngest Wimbledon semi-finalist.

In 1992, Capriati won the singles gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Now there are fears she may never play again. Consecutive disappointments at the US Open contributed to Capriati's growing unease. She returned from the Olympics only to lose in the third round, and last September was eliminated in the first. In January, it was announced that she was returning to school until the summer. She has won dollars 1.5m ( pounds 1.04m).

(Photograph omitted)

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