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Friday, July 16, 2010
'Without tennis, who am I?'

By Johnette Howard
Special to ESPN.com

Jennifer Capriati
Jennifer Capriati has traveled a rocky road coming to grips with her life as a teenage phenom.

Jennifer Capriati's life is at a delicate juncture. And yet, when a call is put out to a handful of tennis stars who've had a part in her past dating to her days as a child prodigy, their responses are immediate: "Call me anytime" … "I'll be available after I drop my kids off at school" … "On the road today, but here's the best phone number. Just find me."

Jennifer Capriati
Capriati played some of the most memorable matches in tennis in the first half of this decade.

Billie Jean King was Capriati's doubles partner the day Capriati turned pro at 13 years old in 1990. Chris Evert, Andrea Jaeger, Pam Shriver -- they were all successful teenage tennis pros, too, though not commoditized as instantly or intensely as Capriati was from day one. And in the wake of the news that Capriati was rushed to a South Florida hospital in the wee hours of June 28 because of an unspecified prescription drug overdose, all of them are rooting for Capriati. All of them are willing to help answer the plaintive question that Justin Gimelstob, Capriati's good friend and tennis contemporary, says Capriati has sometimes put to him.

"Without tennis, who am I?" Capriati has asked.

Evert, who thinks she shares some blame for the turbulence Capriati suffered in her career, has some searingly honest, poignant thoughts about that question. Evert was Capriati's childhood idol, and the Evert family was very involved in Capriati's early career. Both families were based in the Palm Beach, Fla., area. Evert's father, Jimmy, a public parks pro, coached Jennifer from the age of 4 until Capriati's dad, Stefano, took over. Evert's brother, John, was Capriati's first agent at IMG.

The Everts are regarded as a tennis family that did it right in many ways. But even despite that, according to Chris, her all-in commitment to becoming No. 1 cost her much of her girlhood.

Speaking now of Capriati, Evert says, "I feel so sad … but I get it and her and what she is going through. The tennis world, her agents, the press and players have let her down -- me included. To have had so much success, highs, adrenaline, focus, attention, adulation on one at such a young age, and then to have it whisked away from under your feet in a nanosecond is debilitating and damaging. Of course there was depression. People who always told her how great she was and patted her on the back were soon on to the next young star."

Jennifer Capriati
At 15, as she was here at the Virginia Slims tournament in 1991, Capriati was already worth millions.

Within hours of Capriati's hospitalization last month, a family spokeswoman issued a statement saying Capriati had accidentally taken too many prescription pills but was in stable condition. A later update said she was back home resting "comfortably." A request from ESPN.com to speak with Capriati or her mother was declined through an intermediary.

The incident was an unwanted reminder of Capriati's past admission that she thought of committing suicide as a teenager, a story that reverberated for months in the media and the tennis world. Last month's overdose fell out of the 24/7 news cycle almost as quickly as it surfaced on the middle Sunday of Wimbledon -- timing that Gimelstob told CBS he didn't find coincidental.

"There's no doubt that with the heightened focus with Wimbledon and tennis being on everyone's radar, that it makes Jennifer feel even worse," he said shortly after the incident.

Capriati is 34. She hasn't played since shoulder surgery sidelined her a few years ago. So much has happened, the question of who she is can be answered in a lot of different ways -- many of them positively, it should be stressed.

Capriati was both the effervescent eighth-grader who was worth $6 million the instant she turned pro and the sullen-looking girl with heavy mascara and a nose ring who was in trouble with the law, first for shoplifting a $15 piece of jewelry in December 1993 and then for possession of marijuana five months later.

Chris Evert
Chris Evert, a teen tennis phenom herself, understands the difficulties Capriati is having adjusting to life out of the game.

By the time she was 17, Capriati had two stints in drug rehab as well as two Grand Slam semifinal appearances. There were still more false starts and lost years ahead. Partly as a response to her difficulties, the Women's Tennis Association finally passed a rule that sharply limited teenage players' schedules. Too late.

With her 20th birthday approaching, and feeling "sick of losing," she began to right herself and became one of the best comeback stories tennis has ever seen. And that's part of who Jennifer Capriati is, too.

When Capriati recommitted to training in late 1999, the payoff was astounding. She produced some of the most memorable matches women's tennis saw in the first half of this decade. The thunderclap start was a straight-sets victory against Martina Hingis for her first career Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2001.

Capriati successfully defended her championship in 2002 by holding off Hingis again in heat that registered 120 degrees on the court, winning this time after falling behind 6-4, 4-0. She won the French Open that year as well, outlasting Kim Clijsters in a 12-10 third set. She fell just two matches short of winning Wimbledon and heading into the U.S. Open still alive for a Grand Slam sweep.

Sports Illustrated voted yet another Capriati epic -- her 2003 U.S. Open semifinal loss to Justine Henin -- the greatest women's match of the decade. After the match, Henin was lying on a training table getting four IVs.

Jennifer Capriati
One of the "up" moments: the celebration after her first Grand Slam victory at the 2001 Australian Open.

Shriver, now a TV analyst, has seen all of the tennis greats over the past 35 years and yet she says, "That second Australian title that Jennifer won in that extraordinary heat wave still ranks as one of those matches you remember the rest of your life. I can still remember the applause for Jennifer that day, too, because that ovation still ranks right up there with the most fantastic responses from a crowd that I ever, ever heard on the tennis court."

What Capriati was able to accomplish in that stretch of her career after not winning a single match at a major from 1994 till '99 is "amazing," Shriver maintains.

"Think about it," she says. "Jennifer still won as many majors as Lindsay Davenport, who was a four- or five-time and year-end No. 1. And Jennifer held the No. 1 ranking, too. People have always had a lot of affection for her because they knew she persevered through a lot of challenges, expectations -- through everything."

There is a distinct pattern to Capriati, all right. She gets down. She might act badly. Things might even look dim or lost. But somehow, sometimes harrowingly late, she gathers herself. And she claws back.

Exactly what Capriati chooses to rage at is another story.

It isn't always just the people across the net from her.

Jennifer Capriati
And one of the 'down:' Her mug shot after an arrest for marijuana possession in May 1994.

But Capriati's struggles to transition into a forced retirement or overcome being a child prodigy are not unique. Hingis, who turned pro at 14, once fired her mother as her coach. Andre Agassi resented his father for forcing him to play as a young child and recently confessed to trying crystal meth.

The experiences of Jaeger and Tracy Austin are cautionary tales of the mental and physical grind of tennis stardom achieved too young. Both broke down with debilitating injuries before age 20.

Jaeger, who had seven shoulder surgeries, went on to establish the Silver Lining Ranch and the Little Star Foundation, which helps cancer-stricken kids and other children in need around the world. But looking back on her youth, she says, "When I think of what I went through as a minor, oh God, it was hell sometimes. It was hell. Success insulates you from what's normal. You don't learn skills to cope with ordinary situations, so you're always trying to navigate to a place of … what? You didn't have those tools or develop your own voice to begin with."

So, back to the original question: Who is Jennifer Capriati?

"She's a fighter on the court and in life," says King. "How she plays tennis is pretty revealing about her character."

"She's a sweet girl, not a mean bone in her body, but very wary and guarded -- understandably so," says Evert. "She desires and needs, I think, a passion in her life. A network of people that truly care should come up with something for a decent and good young woman."

King_Capriati
Billie Jean King was Capriati's doubles partner when she turned pro at 13. "She's a fighter," King says.

"She has this feeling of abandonment by the tennis world, but it's the exact opposite," Gimelstob says. "People have such a loving feeling for her. … They just want her to find some kind of peace."

Capriati has help … if she wants it. Dozens of people are reaching out to her, even if she doesn't always respond. It might not be possible for Capriati to hear it right now, but what if the answer to her melancholy question -- "Without tennis, who am I?" -- is this: a happier, healthier human being?

"It's possible," says Jaeger. "Fortunately, she's still here. So there's still time.

"I should have been in the same situation she's in," Jaeger adds. "Sometimes, you just want to reach out and scoop Jennifer up and show her the clouds and the stars and everything that's in the world, then say, 'You can actually have that every day when you wake up. You don't need tennis. Or you can stay in tennis. Either way, honor who you are. Know who you are. And act on that.'"

Jennifer Capriati can still be whoever she wants to be.

"And she'll get there," Gimelstob says.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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