On comeback trail, Capriati no longer such a sad picture

March 24, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. - Jennifer Capriati stood outside the locker room at the Lipton Championships, staring at a painting of herself from 1992.

The old Jennifer.

Capriati liked what she saw.

Informed the painting soon would be auctioned, her mother, Denise, bid $500. But Capriati, once accused of stealing a $15 ring, is finally growing up.

She bid $1,000.

A 19-year-old making a comeback. A 19-year-old trying to recapture her past glory. It sounds crazy, but Capriati's life hasn't exactly been normal, has it?

Yesterday, she defeated Russia's Elena Likhovtseva, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, in a gorgeous stadium on a gorgeous afternoon in front of thousands of gorgeous South Floridians.

To think, it was less than two years ago when Capriati was arrested for marijuana possession at a seedy $50-a-night hotel in nearby Coral Gables.

She underwent treatment in two drug-rehabilitation centers, ended her first comeback after one match, remained absent from the tour for 2 1/2 years.

The Lipton is her third tournament since returning. Capriati looks fit, she's playing well, and most importantly, she seems happy. Bring on today's opponent, 10th-seeded Amanda Coetzer.

Capriati's comeback doesn't pack the emotional wallop of Monica Seles', seeing as how Capriati's wounds were self-inflicted. Still, the crowd cheered passionately for her yesterday, and gave her a huge ovation when the match ended.

Why not?

Capriati is still a teen-ager; she doesn't turn 20 until Friday. Considering all she has been through all that others have put her through she deserves this second chance.

Women's tennis now has a rule that a player can't compete in championship events before she is 16, and can't join the tour until she is 18. Capriati turned pro at 13. She could have used the protection.

Her parents pushed her. Her agents used her. After one year as a pro, Forbes magazine named her one of the 40 highest-paid athletes in the world. With the money machine at work, no one noticed Capriati becoming an emotional wreck.

The result was the famous police mug shot that stood as a symbol not only of wasted youth, but also of a troubled sport. For every teen-age success every Chris Evert and Steffi Graf there was a Tracy Austin, an Andrea Jaeger and, finally, a Capriati.

She grew to hate tennis.

All things considered, it was the appropriate response.

So, why come back? Why not just go to college and start over? Capriati's answer is the same as Mike Tyson's, the same as Michael Jordan's, the same as any competitive athlete's. Tennis is all she knows. Tennis is her life.

"I have always had it in my head," Capriati said. "I never thought I was just done, completely done with tennis. I just knew that it was inside me and it is what I do best."

For all her hype, Capriati has never reached a Grand Slam final. Her biggest accomplishment was beating Graf for the Olympic gold medal in 1992. She was just getting started when she left the sport.

"I always thought she'd come back," said Pam Shriver, former president of the Women's Tennis Association. "There's something that festers. You can't move on."

Shriver, of course, was a teen-age sensation herself, a U.S. Open finalist at 16. But she didn't become a full-time professional right away. And she pressed for the new rule forcing young players to begin their careers more gradually.

The problem was, Capriati was a true prodigy, the best 14-year-old Shriver had ever seen. It's the age-old question: Why restrain talent? For Shriver, the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals provided an answer.

Seles, 17, faced Capriati, 15.

"One of the greatest matches of all time, a slugfest," Shriver said. "I sat there, and I couldn't believe what I was watching."

Capriati twice served for the match, but Seles won in a third-set tiebreaker. A television announcer asked Capriati, "Did you choke?" Capriati retreated to a runway under the stadium and wept.

"Oh, it was cruel," Shriver, 33, said of the TV interview. "You can ask me that question. Don't ask a little kid who had just played one of the greatest matches ever. I never thought she was the same after that."

But now five years have passed. Capriati no longer giggles, but it's not as if she's world-weary. She smiled easily yesterday, appearing comfortable and relaxed.

"Yeah, I am getting old," she joked the other night after her first-round victory at the Lipton.

Her parents are divorced now. Her picture is off the police blotter and back on the sports pages. In one week, her stormy teen-age years will be over.

Outside the locker room, a player greeted Capriati's mother "Is everything OK?" she asked. "Are you relaxed?"

Denise smiled, and so did Jennifer.

"Been a long time," she told a friend.

"A long, long time," he said.

Capriati left the stadium sporting a grunge look white T-shirt, baggy jeans and clogs. Outside, a girlfriend was waiting with Capriati's black Labrador, Aries.

What was it she had said the other night?

"There's nothing like ripping a backhand down the line."

Capriati lifted the dog into the back of her white Grand Cherokee, then climbed in cheerfully, going places again.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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