Capriati's return is guessing game Speculation: The teen-age phenom, who hasn't played a pro match in 14 months, is said to be practicing and looking to defend her Olympic title.

January 20, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

It is an inescapable adjective when discussing the intriguing and confounding career of a tennis player -- or is it former tennis player? -- Jennifer Capriati. The word is dysfunctional, and it applies to Capriati, her family, her business handlers, the leaders of her sport and, finally, a life that metamorphosed from fairy tale to horror story.

Long before her dream spun out into drugs and despair, Capriati was marketed as that uniquely American phenomenon, a "can't-miss kid." Although no one has missed the opportunity to profit from her, Capriati has thus far missed out on happiness.

Her story began so well. She turned pro in 1990, when she was 13, and reached the final of the first tournament she entered. The next year she went on a "youngest-ever" binge in the Grand Slam tournaments. At 16, Capriati beat Steffi Graf for the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics.

Capriati's appeal, though, was never wholly dependent on how well she played tennis. Even when her court success was modest, her impact as a cash cow was significant. After only one year as a professional, Capriati was named by Forbes magazine as one of the 40 highest-paid athletes in the world. At her commercial peak, she was pulling in $4.5 million a year. She is believed to have earned $20 million in her abbreviated career.

That money machine has been dismantled. Now 19 and living in seclusion, Capriati is the subject of tennis' special form of hysterical speculation. As when stabbing victim Monica Seles was poised to return to the sport, the tennis world is clamoring to know what Capriati has been doing since she played her last match 14 months ago -- and if she plans to play again.

No one is talking. Barbara Perry, Capriati's agent, would not comment for this story, but when speaking on a conference call last week she relented. Her terse response was in keeping with )) the tight-lipped approach of those around Capriati.

"She is practicing, but she is not making any decisions yet," Perry said. "No one is putting any pressure on her. I wait for her phone call, if and when it comes."

Capriati's situation has eccentric overtones. She is said to go about in disguises. There are fleeting glimpses and brief sightings. There have been surprise appearances, the latest last summer at a Hall of Fame dinner where Chris Evert, Capriati's one-time role model and the teen queen of her day, implored Capriati to "come back to the game."

Why in the world should she? The game and the greed of those in it were at least partly responsible for her slide from cover girl to Just Say No poster girl.

The world got its first inkling of Capriati's decline in December 1993, when she was accused of stealing a $15 ring from a department store in Tampa, Fla.

Six months later, she was arrested in a hotel room in Coral Gables, Fla., where she and others had allegedly been using drugs. Capriati was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Two teen-agers with her were charged with possession of crack cocaine and heroin.

The next day, the world gawked at an entirely different Capriati when her police mug shot was reproduced, showing a spaced-out teen-ager with a puffy face, raccoon eyes and a nose ring.

Her parents' response to their daughter's arrest on the shoplifting charge had been to send her to a psychiatric hospital for a two-week evaluation. She emerged from her involuntary stay bitter and angry.

After the marijuana arrest she underwent a court-administered drug rehabilitation program for 23 days. Capriati told the New York Times that she had considered suicide.

Her parents, Denise and Stefano, have divorced. Stefano Capriati could not be reached for comment. Denise Capriati did not return telephone calls.

Tommy Thompson is the director of coaching at the Harry Hopman Tennis Academy near Tampa, Fla., where Jennifer now lives with her father. Thompson said stories of an out-of-shape Capriati are not true. She is in excellent condition and is physically ready to return to the tour, he said.

As before, Capriati practices under the tutelage of her father, whose domineering presence caused a stir on the tour.

The one tennis goal that seems to interest Capriati is defending her Olympic gold medal. To be eligible for the Atlanta Games, however, Capriati must first be available to play Federation Cup.

"She told me she had been practicing," said Fed Cup captain Billy Jean King. "I told her I wanted to see her in tour events before I could evaluate her level. It's not fair to the other [Fed Cup] players. I told her she's got to put herself on the line."

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