Jennifer Capriati, tennis

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei


There are plenty of images you can use to remember Jennifer Capriati.

There is the cover photo from Sports Illustrated, in which she is attacking a ball while wearing a peach floral tennis outfit. The salmon-colored graphics say it all: And She's Only 13!

The other enduring image, however, is the grim-faced suspect in a mugshot, with the pierced nose, unkempt appearance and a blouse with a 70s-era butterfly collar.

The latter image began to dominate our view of Jennifer Capriati after arrests for shoplifting and drug possession in 1993 and 1994. Pundits and sportswriters were beginning to place Jennifer Capriati in a class of burned-out tennis prodigies: Katny Rinaldi. Andrea Jaeger.

Jennifer Capriati became the living archetype of everything that was wrong with child prodigies in big-time, moneyed professional sports. When the rules were changed to prevent young teenagers from turning professional, it was called the Jennifer Capriati Rule. People looking to prevent the physical or mental burnout of young tennis players said that they wanted to prevent "another Jennifer Capriati."

Since her fall, however, she began a seven-year scramble back to the top of the women's tennis elite. For much of the late 1990s, Capriati as has gone through a number of coaches and a number of sponsors. She fired her father Stefano, then rehired him as her coach.

Capriati's repeated comeback attempts received scant notice from even tennis experts who focused instead on the Big Four: Venus, Serena, Lindsay, Martina.

But as the 2001 tennis season commenced with the Australian Open, you noticed a different Jennifer Capriati. This wasn't a little girl with everything handed to her.

Instead, what you saw was an aggressive athlete -- a woman tennis player (what a concept!) who has worked extremely hard on herself and her tennis game. She didn't let the game to come her: she went out and took. She outhustled, outhit, and outlasted her opposition in the Australian summer heat.

Perhaps the tennis experts should have re-assessed their thoughts after Capriati was able to out-hit Monica Seles in the quarterfinal round. Or, perhaps, when she beat a hard-hitting Lindsay Davenport (the Australian Open's No. 2 seed, no less) to get to the final against Martina Hingis.

One incident in that match showed the breadth of Capriati's improvement. At set point in the first, Hingis hit a drop volley that went just over the net and bounced. Capriati flew to the net, blocked the ball back for the winner, then stopped just short of the center line.

Knowing that touching the net would lose her the point (and the set) she had just won, Capriati reached over the net with her racquet and braced her momentum. It is not a move a player on the edge of control would make.

Game and first set, Capriati.

At the 2001 Australian Open, she showing the kind of promise that she had shown more than a decade earlier. She had hustle, power, and an unshakable self-belief that allowed her to earn a straight-set victory over the top-seeded Hingis.

The odd thing is that, after she became an example of everything that is wrong and corrupt with women's tennis, Capriati became everything that is right: a mature, thinking, moving player.

And that thinking, moving player now has a major championship to her credit. The image of the triumphant Capriati -- wearing the all-white sleeveless top that exaggerated her now-muscular frame -- is destined to replace all other images we have ever had of her.

After all she has gone through, she deserves it.