Young, famous and easy prey: Tennis superstar Capriati's fall not unusual

May 22, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

When she was 13 and smiling freely and hitting a tennis ball ferociously, they said it would be different.

They said that Jennifer Capriati would not become a poster child for tennis burnout. She would be cared for, her parents promised. Agents from International Management Group, perhaps the most powerful marketing firm in world sports, vowed both to protect her from the financial sharks and enrich her beyond anyone's dreams.

But here she is at 18, a fallen tennis star staring at the world from a mug shot.

Has anyone learned anything about the perils of mixing childhood and superstardom?

"When children don't get childhood, they don't become normal adults," said Mary Carillo, a CBS-TV tennis commentator and former touring pro.

"Isn't this kind of predictable?" she asked. "I understand a lot of people were surprised and outraged with Capriati. But surprise has no business showing up in this story."

Childhood phenomenons

Ms. Capriati, who entered a drug rehab clinic after being arrested for marijuana possession, is one of a long line of childhood phenomenons who have somehow run aground. Some survive the trauma. Others don't.

In tennis, round up the usual suspects of pony-tailed sweethearts turned old before their time, of Andrea Jaeger hitting moon balls one moment, arguing with her father and coach the next, then dropping out of sight altogether. Or Tracy Austin, a 16-year-old champion with a bad back and a wrecked career who has recently re-emerged happily married and on the comeback trail.

"You should look at what the parents do for their children," said retired tennis star John McEnroe. "It's very unhealthy for their long-term career to put them out there so early when they don't know what $5 is, let alone $1 million. Sponsors and companies, just so they can help themselves, offer these little teen-agers multimillion-dollar contracts . . . and they accept it. But they don't understand the ramifications."

It's not just tennis that has problems with phenoms.

College football's national championship team, the Florida State Seminoles, is wracked by scandal. Eight players were accused of taking illegal gifts and cash. The team's star kicker, a freshman, was fined $500 for illegally taping a sexual encounter. And a reserve linebacker faces a rape charge. All this in the past two weeks.

"No sports story surprises me anymore, but I would say the same thing about drive-by shootings," said Joe Lapchick Jr., who heads Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Boston.

'Society unhinged'

"I think it is a whole society that has become unhinged," he said. "We have problems in America that go so far beyond Jennifer Capriati's particular fate. We have to recognize that she is part of a youth culture that is the major consumer of drugs in the #F country that consumes 60 percent of the world's drugs."

Are the problems Ms. Capriati faces all that much removed from the adolescence of actress Drew Barrymore, a star at 6, an alcoholic as a teen? Is there much that separates Ms. Capriati from classically trained music prodigies whose love of music burns out by their 20s?

"Every town you go to, every major music school you go through, there is a phenom who is great," said Vincent Lenti, director of communication education division at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. "The percentage of those who end up with a career is negligible, and you hope they don't end up personal tragedies. But the difference between tennis and music is this: the money."

When Ms. Capriati broke from the tennis tour after the 1993 U.S. Open, she was already a millionaire many times over.

She said she needed time to heal an ailing shoulder and an opportunity to live a normal life away from tennis.

But for Ms. Capriati, a normal life came down to sharing a $50-a-night motel room in Coral Gables, Fla., with a teen-age runaway, a high school dropout, and an unemployed drifter.

She was arrested Monday for marijuana possession, and by Thursday she was enrolled in an addiction treatment program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. Her attorney also vigorously denied allegations made by the drifter, Tom Wineland, and his attorney, that Ms. Capriati used crack cocaine and was "whacked out on heroin."

But within hours of her arrest, the foundation of her fortune, endorsement deals, was cracked. Prince, a racket manufacturer, and Diadora, an Italian clothing firm, cut their ties with the once-ebullient and charming star.

The years on tour had taken a toll on Ms. Capriati. And the sport she once helped carry as a star was once again forced to reassess its values and rules.

Women's tennis is different. Gymnastics may be a battle of prepubescent tumblers and figure skating a neatly controlled exhibition. But in tennis girls and women compete on equal terms.

At 14, a girl can join the pro tour for a limited schedule. At 16 she can play full time. But the rules are being reassessed by a medical panel convened by the Women's Tennis Council.

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