Tennis: The embers still flicker in yesterday's teen idol

Gerard Wright finds Jennifer Capriati is still fighting the inner battle to fulfil her talent
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The Independent Online
WELL, as we sing in the States, Mama don't let your babies grow up to be ... prodigies. Don't teach them to play at three and turn pro at 13. Don't confine their horizons to the baseline. Don't make them think that self-esteem is measured by victories and endorsements and money.

Or if you do be prepared for some cleaning up afterwards. What could possibly have happened that would keep a player who was a semi-finalist and later a quarter- finalist at Wimbledon away from the All England Club for five years? Is 22 too old when the world No 1 and those who aspire to be her, or at least take her place, are not yet old enough to vote?

Jennifer Capriati was an abnormally gifted child playing an exceptionally demanding adult's game. She had the shots to reach Grand Slam semi-finals and the world's top 10. But she was still a child. As she grew older there were signs that she wanted to escape from the fur-lined, but still padded, cell which surrounds the best players. At one Australian Open press conference she appeared in a pair of calf- length Doc Martens. She chewed gum and affected indifference. Some in her audience would have recognised it as puberty and taken steps to deal with her ever more public disenchantment with the sport. That appears not to have happened. In 1993 she made the quarter-finals of the Australian and French Opens, as well as Wimbledon. She left the Australian Open press conference in tears. In late August she lost in the first round of the US Open.

When the Capriati biography is written, that instance will mark the end of a section of her life. The next was well, and often hysterically, documented: an arrest for possession of marijuana in a Miami motel room. In the years since, Capriati's parents, Denise and Stefano have divorced, she has moved from one side of the US to the other to live with both, and she has attempted three comebacks.

In November last year Capriati was briefly reunited with her old coach, Rick Macci, who oversaw her preparation for four years from when she was 10. What Macci saw left him with mixed impressions. "It's amazing," he said. "Off the ground Jennifer is as good as anyone. But unfortunately, when you are talking about being the best in the world you have to have more than talent. You have to have the mental make-up to be a great player."

The tennis world still waits and hopes for Capriati to break through. She has used wild cards into several tournaments this year, including Wimbledon, where she will play the Australian left-hander Nicole Pratt in the first round. Macci believes that if ever there was a chance for her star to ascend again, this is it.

"I don't know where she's at mentally, but grass is more suited to her game, because of her lower centre of gravity and the way she hits through the ball," he said. "If she's connecting she could be a dangerous floater."

Under the circumstances it's probably the nicest thing you could say about, or to her, since Capriati appears to be still addicted to competition, if not preparation. In late March she said the attraction of playing was: "Just the basic love of the game

At the same time, she alluded to the emotional, as well as physical effort it took just to reach that point, a first-round defeat at the Lipton championships in Key Biscayne. The thought of quitting had crossed her mind, she said. "But I think this is the test of oneself. I feel I've been in a sort of constant fight, you know, but it's just ... it's getting easier. So it's something I want to continue."