Capriati: 'It's great to be back'

November 10, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Jennifer Capriati, her face hidden beneath a blue baseball cap with a red bill, her hair in pigtails, smiled only once last night as she returned to pro tennis for the first time in 15 months at the Virginia Slims of Philadelphia.

The smile came as she walked onto the court at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and was greeted by a standing ovation, cheers and whistles.

It was quite a welcome for an 18-year-old who plummeted from a No. 6 world ranking and star status to a wild-card entry, and who, seven months ago, checked herself into a drug-rehabilitation clinic after being arrested and charged with marijuana possession in Florida.

"I've closed the door on the last 14 months," Capriati said. "What's in the past is in the past. I wasn't trying to be rebellious. I wasn't trying to be a rebel or anything. It was just the way I was.

"But now it's great to be back. Really great to be back playing."

Capriati, an unseeded wild-card entry, faced Anke Huber, the No. 13 player in the world and a woman she had beaten in all four of their previous meetings.

And though Capriati didn't win this time, she learned she is still competitive and compelling.

She lost to Huber, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, before a crowd of about 4,000, with an additional gathering of nearly 150 print and broadcast media from as far away as Europe and Japan. Capriati started slowly in the first set, and came on like a comet in the second before finally fading in the third.

"I got tired," she admitted. "I'm not used to that much running and I'm not in tip-top condition. But my tennis felt a lot stronger than when I last played."

Her bruising, two-handed backhand is intact and when she streaked from deep in the back court to catch up to a Huber drop shot for a stretched out cross-court forehand winner to take the second set, it was apparent most of the rest of her game is too.

"I think her shots are the same," said Huber. "But she is just missing the feeling for the match. She has missed 15 months. You can practice, but you cannot get the match feel without the match play. I think once she has that, she is going to be the same player again."

Capriati is at this tournament with former touring pro Jose Higueras, who coaches Jim Courier.

He and Capriati met about four weeks ago at a Palm Springs tennis club and he has been helping her since, though he says he is not her coach.

"She's out here to have a good time and compete," said Higueras. "She's hitting the ball well, but she hasn't played in 15 months."

Capriati, who turned pro at 13, had been the darling of the women's pro tennis world: A Sports Illustrated cover story, a finalist in her first pro tournament in 1990, a French Open semifinalist at 14.

By 1991 she ranked among the top 40 highest paid athletes in the world, with $20 million in earnings and sponsors paying her an additional $5 million annually. In 1992, she won a gold metal at the Olympics in Barcelona.

Then came a December 1993 reprimand for allegedly shoplifting a $15 ring at a store in Tampa, Fla.

Last March she moved into her own apartment in Florida, while a high school senior, and began hanging out with drug users.

In May, she was arrested on marijuana possession charges, was abandoned by all her sponsors and checked into a drug-rehab center.

Afterward, she moved, with her family, to Palm Springs.

And now, still only 18, she is taking her first step in her comeback.

"I think it's tremendous she's coming back already," said Lindsay Davenport, an 18-year-old, who didn't turn pro until she was 16.

By the time Capriati was 16, she had already been a semifinalist in three Grand Slam tournaments.

"I didn't think she'd try to come back until next year," said Davenport. "But I've spent some time with her here and I think she's ready to come back. She has a different attitude, a different approach. She's here without her parents and I think that's a major step. Tennis isn't a family project -- at least it shouldn't be.

"My dad still worked when I turned pro," said Davenport. "He didn't want all his eggs in one basket with me. He still works -- so does my mom. Tennis isn't something every member of the family has to be a part of."

But Capriati's family was involved. Once Capriati turned pro at 13, her father's only job was managing his daughter's career and her earnings supported the family. Her family wasn't at this tournament, but she said it is because she wanted to keep her return as simple as possible.

"While I was away," she said, "I learned I really loved the game and that it doesn't matter if I win or lose. I want to compete again. I think what I've been through has made me wiser. I found out what I like. And tonight, I had a lot of fun just playing. It was nice to be on the court again."

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