Commentary

Jennifer Capriati still battling

Updated: July 13, 2012, 5:51 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

One word comes to mind when I think about Jennifer Capriati playing in the 1990 French Open semifinal at 14 years old: phenom.

A single word is all that's needed to sum up Capriati's ascent to No. 1, 11 years later: overdue.

And the word that best describes why it took her so long: demons.

[+] EnlargeJennifer Capriati
Simon Bruty/Getty ImagesBy 1991, a teenage Jennifer Capriati was competing with the pros at Wimbledon.

Jennifer Capriati was always fighting her demons.

Jennifer Capriati is still fighting her demons.

They were with her when she became the youngest player ever to finish a season in the top 10. They were with her when she battled back from drug addiction to claim her first Grand Slam title. They will be with her when she delivers her acceptance speech at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., this weekend.

We all have them … demons.

Some of us do a better job of managing them than others.

Few of us have been forced to manage them in front of cameras at such a young age.

Capriati was only 10 when she made her Sports Illustrated debut. By 13, she was on the cover. Her first doubles partner on tour was a 46-year-old Billie Jean King. It seems everyone wanted a piece of her, and because of that success she had it all. Which, in hindsight, wasn't a good thing.

"It was almost paparazzi-like, when she first came onto the scene," said Pam Shriver, now an ESPN analyst who reached the U.S. Open final at 16. "She was just a kid and she was top four in the world. There were a lot of adults who couldn't handle that pressure, that's just tough for a young person, especially someone going through adolescence … and she fell off the rail."

Hard.

In 1992, Capriati defeated Steffi Graf to win gold at the Olympics. By 1994, at 18, she was out of the game and in and out of legal trouble -- cited for shoplifting and arrested for marijuana possession. Burned out and spiraling out of control like so many child stars before her, Capriati entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility shortly after her arrest. And if she had simply disappeared and was never heard from again, hardly anyone would have noticed.

However, Capriati didn't just go away. She fought her addiction, she fought to get back into shape and she fought her demons. And in the process she scripted one of the most remarkable comeback stories in recent sports history: three majors, the top ranking, a spot on the Federation Cup team … that is until her old friends showed up again.

In 2002, Capriati got kicked off the Fed Cup team for violating team rules. King, the team coach at the time, closed off all the practice sessions from individual coaches and agents. Capriati wanted her father, who was also her coach, present. She also wanted to practice with her father after the official team practice was over. King, again, refused. The two argued and, well, King won.

The next year Capriati was dating a porn star by the name Dale DaBone.

Damn demons.

[+] EnlargeJennifer Capriati
Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images Jennifer Capriati celebrates her third Grand Slam title.

No matter how hard you fight, they just never seem to go away. Which is why the trick to survival isn't defeating your demons, it's never giving up the fight.

That is how Capriati became the champion that she is. Somewhere between being a child star and a Hall of Famer she seemed to learn never to give up. No matter how dark the days or cold the nights, she kept fighting.

Early in her comeback, after losing 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in the first round of the 1997 Australian Open, Capriati said, "I'm not going to let this discourage me at all.

"I have enough desire to work to reach my potential still."

She was 20 at the time.

Four years later she had that trophy in her hands.

"It's a story a lot of people can identify with," Andre Agassi said about Capriati's victory shortly after winning on the men's side. "One that is a credit to tennis and a credit to the human spirit."

Months later she won the French Open, overcoming Kim Clijsters 12-10 in the third set.

The next year -- trying to defend her Aussie title -- Capriati found herself down 4-6, 0-4 to Martina Hingis. She fought off four match points and won 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2.

I guess when you've gone to hell and back, fighting off match points is easy.

And who knows, if her shoulder hadn't forced her to retire she might still be on the court fighting today. But seeing how her old friends are still in her life, maybe she has enough fighting on her plate for now.

Two years ago she was rushed into the hospital for allegedly overdosing on prescription drugs. Since then, she has been a bit of a shut-in. Many former pros at this year's Wimbledon were asking each other about her; few had any answers. Sources tell me she is still wrestling with personal issues and even considered not accepting the Hall's invitation because she had anxiety about being in public.

But I think we're all glad she decided to attend.

She has earned a right to be in the Hall. She has the scars to prove it.

Yes, her demons will be with her this weekend. And as she stands on stage to hear the applause, she'll hopefully remember, so will her fight.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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