The Capriati descent should surprise no one

May 23, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Jennifer Capriati, little Jenny of the bouncy smile and sparkly eyes, is in a drug rehab center. She was allegedly caught holding some dope in a semi-seedy hotel room. The guy who was with her said they spent the weekend there, partying on booze and drugs.

She's the bright little girl gone bad, and there's much wringing of hands as to what went wrong, as if we didn't know.

It's an ugly, sordid mess that is in no way surprising. Actually, there's one surprise: that she's the first of the tennis teen prodigies to end up like this.

Of course, she was the first to do a lot of things. The youngest to win a match at Wimbledon. The youngest to be a semifinalist at a grand-slam event. She was 13 when she joined the tennis tour and 17 when she left, saying she wanted to go to high school and live a normal life.

Ah, the normal life. For her, normal life as a high school student meant her own apartment in a different city from where her parents live.

She's 18 now and in big trouble.

Surprising?

You try growing up the way she did. You try living out your puberty in the living room of strangers.

You try being 15 and having to explain to the TV camera why you lost in the first round of a tournament.

You try to figure out wrong from right when right apparently means being pushed by your parents to grab everything you can as soon as you can and worry about the future some other time.

What's amazing is how many of the young people who grow up this way turn out all right.

I first knew for sure that something was very wrong when Capriati, then 14, was playing an exhibition match for $20,000 -- on a school night. She had already signed several million-dollar endorsements. What was she doing out there? Who was that money for?

Let's consider the ordinary, hormone-driven, late-night-tears, minor-rebellions, life-is-too-much-to-bear adolescence. You may have teen-age kids, or you may have been one yourself. In either case, you should know what I'm talking about.

You're either too tall, short, fat, thin, smart, dumb. And nobody likes you. Or nobody knows you. You've been there.

Some kids carry extra burdens. They are prodigies of a kind. They play piano, except not like our kids do. Or they swim. Or they dance. They have special gifts that need to be treated in a special way.

But most get to explore their talents in relative privacy.

Even child actors, who grow up on the screen, don't have to face the press every day to explain their defeats or to tell their life stories as if they'd had any time to live lives yet.

On the tennis tour, there is everyday pressure that breaks grown men and women, much less kids too young to drive.

Putting your 13-year-old out there is a form of child abuse. It's that simple. And we're all to blame. We think they're so cute, these little darlings in pigtails. Capriati got her millions in endorsements based on that principle. Once she got in trouble, the endorsements vanished.

The fact is that nearly all who turn pro by age 14 -- Tracy Austin or Andrea Jaeger come to mind -- break down, usually physically.

Is there a rush? Will the money disappear?

We watched little Jenny grow up, and I've heard the talk about how we should have known there was trouble ahead. You see, a few years ago, she painted her nails black. She wears four earrings at a time. She even has a ring for her nostril. And, yes, she was caught shoplifting.

She must be . . . a kid.

Her father said it was just a teen-age problem. He was right. And he was wrong. It's a teen-age problem that many kids face, except few have to read about it in the morning paper.

Monica Seles, while still a teen-ager, mysteriously skipped Wimbledon one year. She ended up on an estate owned by Donald Trump. Can you imagine a worse call: "Dad, I'm staying with The Donald for a while."

The papers were all over that one. There were the rumors, including one that she had gotten pregnant. One columnist wrote that she and Billy Joe McAllister were seen throwing something off the Tallahatchee bridge.

Growing up is hard. It gets harder every day in this speeded-up world of too many temptations and too little supervision. Throw fame and money and high-stakes pressure into the mix, and you can end up like Capriati. She's 18, and under the law, she's responsible for her acts. She's responsible, but who's to blame?

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