Tennis: Wimbledon - Capriati's different strokes

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The Independent Online
JENNIFER CAPRIATI arrived at Court 18 yesterday flanked by security men. It was company she is well used to.

We have not seen the woman they used to call "the Phenom" here since 1993, the year she went a little bonkers. At the age of 17, Capriati's hormones started to move quicker than her legs, her press conferences became more notable than the matches that she played in. She cried at the Australian Open and she cried in Berlin. Full use was made of the breakdown policies.

Jennifer Capriati decided to leave the circuit to catch up on a bit of living, and it was the rebellious teenager bit she concentrated on. If yesterday's contest of Capriati v Pratt had occurred then you might have been excused for thinking it was Capriati playing herself.

Instead of the piercing drive and volley, there was a piercing for nostril and navel, raising the prospect that Capriati might be the first Olympic winner to have a gold medal swinging from her belly button. She wore black boots, adopted the grunge look and started to meet other security men.

She was arrested for shoplifting and possession of marijuana in a Miami motel room. Her party-mates said heroin and crack cocaine had also been consumed.

Capriati missed nine Grand Slams in succession but, after entering a drug rehabilitation programme, she started a comeback in 1996. The native New Yorker has yet to recapture the effervescence of the old days, or the backers for that matter. It means something, however, just to be back playing.

When she started as a 13-year-old pro, Capriati carried with her million- dollar contracts from equipment and clothes manufacturers before she had hit a ball, and logos and sponsors' names crowded out the material on her shirt.

The former harlequin had the name of just one supporter on her outfit when she peeled off yesterday.

Some have suggested this wild child who has been granted a wild card will be a dangerous floater in this tournament, but there was not much floating going on yesterday. The American's fitness has yet to return fully. It will be worked on by Tom Gullikson, the American Davis Cup team captain. "She has got a ways to go but you've got to start somewhere," he said. "Her fitness is going to take time, but you could see the strokes were still there even if they were a little rusty.

"It seems strange to be talking about her making another comeback at 22. Young girls seem to mature physically much earlier and are able to play against people much older than themselves. Whether they are mentally or emotionally ready is a different issue."

The crowd was massively on Capriati's side, but there was a sadness in their manner. The feeling was that they were trying to revitalise this dead bloom of a young player.

The contest became life in microcosm for Capriati. On occasions she was masterful and bold, but also there were moments of fragility and disaffection. In the end she beat Nicole Pratt 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, but the Australian is only the world No 81 and has never been past the second round of a Grand Slam in her life. Pratt could well have changed that record.

The actual winner smiled and later told us how happy she was. But if this what it is like being Jennifer Capriati then maybe it isn't so nice being a tennis player. At least the American managed a dry press conference. "Right now I'm not like 100 per cent in perfect condition or shape," she admitted.

There was also recognition that any return to the summit would be conditioned by her attitude. "That's everything with me," Capriati said. "How bad I want it depends on how well I move and movement is a big part of my game, getting in position to hit. I guess you never lose the touch, I don't think that ever goes away. It's just everything else that goes around it and with me that's definitely desire and fitness.

"Right now I want it pretty bad and I'm really focused and determined to play well."

It was Capriati's collapse that persuaded the Women's Tennis Association to limit the number of pro matches young players could contest. That is just part of the legacy she has left behind for the likes of Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, who now know what early celebrity and success can do.

Capriati was asked what recommendations she had for the new model army, but it took a while for words to come. "I really don't have any advice for them at all," she said. "They're doing well on their own. It seems they like the hype and they feed off it. But it's not my sort of personality."

It certainly used to be, but then Jennifer Capriati's character has changed somewhat. It is not something she can explain quickly. "I could be here all day for that," she said. "That could even take a year.

"But now I'm in control of whatever I'm doing, and I try to be happy off the court as well as on the court."