Profile: Poor little rich kid of tennis: Jennifer Capriati

Bud Collins
Sunday 19 December 1993 00:02

IT WASN'T heavy lifting, not in the Atlas style, but it seemed to jiggle the world as that old Greek body-builder supposedly did himself. Jennifer Capriati, who hasn't lifted a tennis racket for three months, got more attention for lifting a cheap pinkie ring from a Florida store 10 days ago than she did for stealing a gold medal from Steffi Graf last year in Barcelona.

Condemnatory headlines sprouted across the planet, and Capriati, a minor, was punished merely with a citation for a misdemeanour. She says she made a careless mistake in walking off with the ring. What 17-year-old hasn't done similarly, either thoughtlessly, as she claims, or as a prankish act of bravado?

Still, a crime might be involved here. It may have been committed in 1990 when, at 13, Capriati was robbed of her childhood by her father, thrown into the feline-eat-feline maelstrom of professional tennis. She became an instant working woman, part-time schoolgirl and sole support of her family, on whom the world suddenly zoom-lensed.

There was no turning back from her spectacular professional debut at Boca Raton, where Capriati waded through seasoned pros before losing a close final to Gabriela Sabatini. Full galleries and an international press task-force blinked at her every move.

Of innumerable quotes since uttered by Capriati, ranging from adolescent to zany, practically the first, at Boca Raton, was innocently perceptive. 'The press is out of control,' she laughed, peering at the assemblage from all quarters. She no longer laughs. 'I'm shocked at how this thing was blown up,' she says.

Wouldn't Charles Dickens have loved this twist on child labourers? Instead of poor little matchgirls, tennis teems with rich little matchplay girls. They are, in fact, impoverished millionaires.

Listen to a few sport-damning quotes by two of the richest and most successful. Capriati, arriving in Paris for her initial French Open in 1990, barely 14, talked about 'seeing the city' in a couple of hours. She was startled that Notre Dame was a cathedral. 'I thought it was a football team,' she said. Napoleon's Tomb she identified as 'where that little dead dude is buried'. Whether those lines were intended for the laughs they got is unknown. But that was Paris for Capriati. Asked 12 months later, in 1991, what she'd seen this time, she answered, positively, 'I did Paris last year.'

Now we switch to Monica Seles. Asked if anything good came from her brush with death, Seles thought for a while, then replied: 'Yes. While I was recuperating in Colorado, I did some things I didn't even know existed. I hiked in the Rockies, I went fishing and canoeing.' A voice from the tennis tunnel that these precocious kids inhabit, oblivious to anything else.

Of course, Capriati is an accidental tourist, a very wealthy one at that, raised in Florida by her father, Stefano Capriati, for the specific purpose of striking a tennis ball harder, more accurately and more frequently than any other female in the world. She has come close to his (and maybe still her) goal. Rising as high as No 6 in the world, reaching US and Wimbledon semi-finals in 1991, winning the Olympics in 1992. At present she is No 9, forced into idleness by bone chips in her right elbow since a first-round defeat in the United States Open. Recovered from that malady, she had intended to return to competition, she says, 'by mid-February'.

'But now,' says her new agent, Barbara Perry of International Management Group, 'I don't know. This latest thing has really been a downer for Jennifer.' Perry, who took over from a Poppa Capriati-harried John Evert (Chris's brother), was 'looking forward to planning a bright new year for a physically recovered Jennifer. However . . .' Perry's immediate job is that of sympathising and damage control.

Capriati has made so much money (dollars 1,491,823 in tournament winnings alone) that it probably has little meaning. She says as much. Recently she moved out of the family homestead (built with her money) in the small Florida resort of Wesley Chapel and into an apartment of her own in nearby Tampa. The strong suspicion is that come 29 March - her 18th birthday - Jennifer will say bye bye daddy and operate as a free agent. She might even say bye bye to tennis, at least for a while, graduate from high school in May and possibly even enrol in college.

Capriati was surly and uncommunicative throughout most of 1992, often garbing herself in black. Olympic gold brightened her for a time. Poppa crowed at Barcelona: 'You see, when a teenage girl looks in the mirror and sees she's a little fat, she hates her mom and dad. Same thing if she loses matches. But that medal makes everything fine.'

It didn't. Despite raw talent, a powerful physique and heart, Jennifer still didn't know how to play strategically. She was progressing in 1991 under the guidance of Tom Gullikson (now US Davis Cup captain). But Gullikson, a national coach, was paid for by the US Tennis Association and, under pressure for subsidising the Capriatis, the USTA withdrew financial support. Nevertheless Poppa was told he could negotiate with Gullikson himself. Despite vast wealth, Poppa played Scrooge. Gullikson shrugged and departed, and Jennifer hasn't improved. The 1993 season, containing only one of her six career titles, has been the nadir.

Jennifer has often appeared to want only an unremarkable teenager's life with her pals. Long ago she must have realised her father's philosophy. He expressed it to me after I had criticised him for overplaying her, entering her in tournaments not only when she needed rest but when she was injured. He was frank: 'Look, I love my daughter more than you know. But where I come from we have a proverb - 'When the apple is ripe, eat it.' Jennifer is ripe. If she burns out only God can know. Not you or me. But when and if that happens she'll have more money than I could ever give her.'

It's easy to make the overbearing, Italian-born Stefano Capriati the villain of the piece, a man who threatened to sue if the Women's Tennis Association refused to lower its age limit from 14 to 13 to accommodate Jennifer. Yet how many parents would have resisted putting their daughters to work for millions?

And where is the responsibility of the WTA? Should any girl under 16 - even better, 18 - be permitted to plunge into the hurly burly of competition, with the attendant loss of girlhood, privacy, perhaps values?

It may be too soon to determine precisely the psychological harm that has been done to Jennifer, her contemporaries and others before her. But you do not have to be Freud to suspect that what a girl wants may extend to more than just a serve and a backhand.

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