Leading Article: Capriati, rich but robbed of her youth

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE is something sickening about families that grow rich from driving their teenagers to precocious success. Nowhere is the practice more rife than in women's tennis, which has, in 18-year-old Jennifer Capriati, produced yet another casualty of parental pressure. Arrested in Florida this week on drugs charges, she has come to symbolise a system that permits parents to rob their children of a carefree youth.

At first, Ms Capriati's prodigious sporting ascent seemed fun. Driven on by her father, she broke all the records for youthful achievement. At 14, she was beating the giants of her sport and earning millions of dollars. But a sour truth became apparent. Though not even through puberty, she was the main breadwinner in her family. At an age when most young people should be breaking out of the confines of family, she had instead become shackled by parental ambitions. Little wonder she has rebelled.

Ms Capriati is not the first such worrying case. Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger are among several players whose careers were steered by pushy fathers and who became physically or mentally burnt out. Early exposure to top-rank competition can also stunt tennis development, leaving players reliant on hefty ground strokes.

But Ms Capriati's Faustian rise and fall has been the most dramatic. Young women are especially vulnerable in the world of professional tennis. They can reach the top very early, whereas men's tennis is generally dominated by older players. Sponsors also are keen to exploit young faces: Ms Capriati's was selling moisturisers until it developed pimples. Given the prospects of huge financial rewards, it is easy to see the powerful temptations that can corrupt the family life of these girls.

The tennis authorities should act quickly if a fresh generation is not also to be sacrificed to commerce. They should reintroduce the rule, abandoned in 1975, that prevented players under 16 from taking part in major events. An even higher limit ought to apply in the more pressurised Grand Slam events. Most important of all, tightly controlled trusts should be established to safeguard the winnings of young players until they are older. That way, the lure of family wealth would be reduced and parents might not so easily neglect their duty to protect their prodigies.