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Friday, July 13, 2012
A quick look at Capriati's legacy


There are far more successful players in the International Tennis Hall of Fame than Jennifer Capriati, who will be inducted this weekend, but none who can claim to have had a more tempestuous career than the 36-year-old (can she really still be that young?) former No. 1 whose main résumé items are three Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal.

Capriati started life as the prodigy of prodigies. In her first main pro tournament, at age 13, she reached the final of an event in Boca Raton, Fla. The prodigy morphed into a rebellious teenager and, ultimately, a cautionary tale. It didn't end there. She would go on to craft a remarkable tale of rehabilitation, and ended up a deserving Hall of Famer.

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

Her struggles, and the attention they generated, forced the game to adopt much-needed age-based rules of participation that are still in effect today. Yet the rebel in her never really quit, and even after she fulfilled her talent when she won her first Grand Slam title in 2001, she remained something of a misfit.

That first major title, by the way, came her way more than a decade after she made her pro tour, and almost 10 years after she struck Olympic gold in Barcelona.

Capriati's remarkable proficiency at tennis was her only signature talent -- and boy, what a gift it was! -- and that helps explain why she hasn't become more of a presence in the game. She is tennis' invisible champion, and the hermit-like distance she keeps from the tour and tournaments suggests that she still harbors some resentment toward the game that robbed her of her youth. The only way she knew to play "the game" was inside the lines of the court.

I swore off recounting Capriati's difficulties a long time ago; my opinion has always been that she didn't do anything much different than what legions of other kids of her age and background have done, and continue to do. Her great sins were wanting to be someone other than tennis prodigy Jennifer Capriati and living a different kind of life than the one she knew, even if it wasn't a particularly healthy one. If only it had all come to a head when she was a little better equipped to deal with it.

Capriati was a big Guns N' Roses fan. Back when she was already an established star in the Virginia Slims tour but still a teenager, I was invited to a cocktail party in New York where a handful of the middle-aged and very corporate ladies who worked for that outfit excitedly told me that as a special present (birthday, if I recall), they were taking Capriati to the big Guns N' Roses concert. Did I want to go?

I'm a lot older than Capriati, but I couldn't imagine going to the concert with that Gucci N' Burberry group. And I could only wonder what kind of a time Capriati would have, given that she was an awkward kid who probably would have most wanted to be down at the mall, smoking whatever. To me she was never more clearly a prisoner of her fame and her value as a well-paid shill to those who benefited from her talent. Her biggest shortcoming was that, lacking any education or solid role models, she couldn't figure out the big picture and either deal with it or make a cleaner getaway.

But this is a joyous occasion, and it will be nice to see that big, elastic face break out in a smile again come the Saturday at the induction ceremony. I was also present at one of the highlight moments of her career -- the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. The tournament was played on European red clay, and it was extremely competitive. Capriati beat Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and then-No. 1 Steffi Graf to win the gold medal. Capriati was 16 at the time.

It was by any measure a remarkable achievement, but I thought then, as I do now, how much more satisfying it might have been if she had worked up to it, been just a few years older when she did it. It might have saved her a lot of grief.