What Ever Happened to Jennifer Capriati?
If America is the land of the comeback kid - just ask many politicians including the Clintons that claim the title - then sports have their fair share of remarkable fight backs. This blog primarily covers football and the obvious moments are etched in the memory. Joe Montana led the 49ers 28 points down to win 38-35 against the New Orleans Saints in 1980. Talking of comebacks: 28 - 3 is forever ingrained in the minds of Atlanta Falcons fans. That’s the deficit the New England Patriots overcame to beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl in 2017.
For today’s blog I’m going to go off piste and focus on a non-football story. It remains an overlooked, forgotten tale in the yore of great sporting comebacks. It didn’t happen to a team - rather a women’s tennis player. A child prodigy that burned bright, became a teenager and faded. And then in 2001, Jennifer Capriati’s moment came.
Rise of the American Meteor
Jennifer Capriati made her debut in 1990 as the youngest ever pro tennis player at 13 in Boca Raton, Florida. Alongside the arrival of Monica Seles from the former Yugoslavia, Capriati marked the start of the power era in women’s tennis. She became the youngest player to surpass $1 million in prize money and even had a Sega video game named after her. Sally Jenkins from Sports Illustrated dubbed her the next Chris Evert - a poison chalice if ever there was one. For all the promise, the 1990s were a decade of tumultuous upheaval for Capriati.
From tennis prodigy and phenom, to a teenager dabbling in drugs and alcohol, Capriati enjoyed a meteoric rise and crash landed in the public eye. The infamous mug shot of her following a shoplifting spree at a mall in 1994 might not even have been the nadir. The situation was increasingly desperate. As she was later able to reflect: “I didn’t walk away from tennis because I wanted to. I did it because I had to.” The pressure was brutal. When most teenagers are getting ready for high school, she was a star on the professional women’s tour, under pressure from sponsors and enduring a strained relationship with her family.
The Comeback Twenty years ago, in the summer of 2001, Jennifer Capriati’s compatriot Lance Armstrong was lining up an improbable hatrick of Tour De France wins - a feat then being touted as the best comeback in sports. Long before he became discredited, Armstrong was a cancer survivor doing the impossible.
Having taken time away from tennis, Capriati returned in the late 90s refreshed, with renewed purpose. As a person, she had matured enormously, and answered only to herself. She swept aside Martina Hingis in Melbourne in 2001 to win the Australian Open, leading her to win her first Grand Slam. In May, she followed it up by winning the French Open at Roland Garros.
She abandoned tennis when the pressures of doing it for other people - notably her father Stefano - got too much for her: in 2001 she was thriving on the pressure of doing it because she is passionately committed to the pursuit of victory.
After closing out her Wimbledon three set match against an upcoming Serena Williams, she acknowledged the four sides of the Center Court crowd with a bow, redolent of countryman Andre Agassi, and burst into a radiant smile. It is the high watermark of her staggering career that those of us privileged to see it will never forget. If she could bottle the unbridled happiness from Wimbledon that day, it would stand her well in the trials of life that lay ahead.
What We Can All Learn from the Capriati Story What ever happened to Jennifer Capriati, the history books will ask?
Life off the court in retirement has been difficult: she has spoken publicly about crippling depression. As Capriati said at the end of her Hall of Fame address, she wants to inspire and support everyone to believe in themselves, love themselves and be true to themselves. From the mouth of a former troubled child star, it was hard not to admire the formidable role model that had emerged.
Twenty years ago, Capriati reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon ten years after her first appearance. She got back because she wanted it on her terms. Everyone can find something in her story irrespective of sporting preference. Life really should be like that.