COMEBACKS HAVE almost become a cliche at this point, perhaps because it's rare that a day passes without news breaking about an athlete coming out of retirement, coming back from rehab or endeavoring to clear some hurdle, real or imagined.
This is the age of the comeback, for better or (usually for) worse. And that backdrop diminishes what Jennifer Capriati is accomplishing in rising out of the cinders of her spectacular flameout to make it back to the top of women's tennis.
Eleven years ago, at 14, she was the girl wonder. Five years later, her life was in ruins. Now, after going almost five years without winning a match in any of the game's four major tournaments, she can take her second straight major title in 2001 if she beats Kim Clijsters in the finals of the French Open today. Just the latest in the endless line of sports comebacks? Hardly. This is the model, the one to be studied and copied.
If Comeback 101 was a class, Capriati could teach it.
Few top athletes have fallen deeper into a personal and professional hole. Even fewer have returned to the pinnacle of their game.
And most impressively, Capriati, 25, is doing it without resorting to the wallowing, grandstanding and general attention-getting other comebackers seem to crave.
Think about it. Have you seen or read any tell-all interviews plumbing the depths of her murky past? No. As she told NBC's Katie Couric, who (shockingly) was looking for gore in a national TV interview, "What happened in the past happened. Now I let my tennis do the talking."
She said it graciously, with a smile, yet left no doubt that she was firm about keeping the demons of her past private.
Please allow me to lead the standing ovation.
With all due respect, we have seen enough comebackers offering the traditional, teary (and usually televised) plea for sympathy - the desperate request for the public to understand just how tough life has been or how high the obstacle in their ways stands.
Capriati could tell a tale of woe as horrid as anyone's, and if she keeps playing well and winning, she might at some point. But barring a sharp reversal, she will do it with dignity - that rarest of qualities in the tabloid age.
"You know there have been many, many steps in Jennifer's comeback, and she has taken almost all of them privately," Pam Shriver, the former player and current announcer, said yesterday. "She had that one breakdown at the U.S. Open a few years ago when she was crying and asking the press not to keep going back to her dark days. I think that was a cathartic moment for her. She needed to let people know that, while obviously there are a lot of emotions wrapped up in those tough days, now it's a different time."
Capriati was a top-five player at 14, a powerful wonder hailed as the savior of women's tennis, but instead, she became the classic case of the young athlete on whom too much pressure was placed too soon. She was caught shoplifting, arrested for marijuana possession and sent to drug rehab, then disappeared from the tour for 15 months.
"Typical teen-age rebellion, really," Shriver said, "and she had so much to rebel against. The rest of the tennis world, the tour leadership, her management company, her parents - there were a lot of people to blame for the pressure she felt and the childhood years she missed."
Her comeback has unfolded in increments. First, she started playing again without caring about results, obviously just happy to have her life back in some order. Then she started winning some matches while still falling short of the top echelon. Then she started beating some top players, just not consistently.
Now, suddenly, in the past six months, she has put it all together in stunning fashion, barging into the starry dominance of Martina Hingis and the Williams sisters and threatening to blow past them all. She won the Australian Open in January and could reach the halfway point of a Grand Slam today.
"She's probably the No. 1 player in the world over the past six months," Shriver said. "She was always one of the best ball-strikers out there, just so strong and forceful. Now she's even stronger, and wiser, and most importantly of all, she's totally fit. She was never fit until a year and a half ago, but she's made that commitment.
"When you have power and smarts and fitness and variety in your game, that's impressive."
Her return to the top has coincided with her decision to let her father, Stefano, resume coaching her. Stefano has taken the blame for pushing his daughter far too hard before, sending her into the downward spiral that almost ruined her. Humbled, he now concentrates on tennis and lets his daughter live. The results of the arrangement speak for themselves.
"The comeback radiates through Jennifer's whole being," Shriver said. "She has come back spiritually, physically, as a tennis player. It's an amazing and wonderful thing to see. Usually, in tennis, there's always someone who isn't happy about whatever happens. But I can't think of one person who isn't happy about this."