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The Hard Return

At 14, she was up. At 17, she was down. And now, at 25, she is (incredibly) back up again. How the ballsiest woman in tennis got her game -- and her life -- back

By L. Jon Wertheim

  "I'm just waiting to wake up from this dream," Capriati told the French Open crowd during the trophy ceremony. "It doesn't seem like reality right now."  Bob Martin
Never mind her winning the Australian Open last winter, the first Grand Slam title of her improbable career. Forget about her dramatic victory at the French Open in June. The defining moment of Jennifer Capriati's gilded year came on an infernally hot August afternoon at a marginal tournament. At the Acura Classic in San Diego, Capriati faced Monica Seles in the quarterfinals.

As the match progressed, Seles unleashed her signature stuck-pig grunt every time she hit the ball. Capriati, distracted and annoyed, glowered at Seles. As the two walked to their chairs for a changeover, Capriati flashed her opponent a death stare that screamed, "Shut the %@*# up!" When that failed to effect any change, Capriati chucked her racquet onto the asphalt court, dropped a few curses and appealed to the chair umpire to intervene. "Tell her to stop," Capriati demanded.

Understand that women's tennis doesn't suffer trash-talk gladly. Understand, too, that ever since she failed to regain her form after being stabbed on court nearly a decade ago, Seles has been a politically untouchable player who can do no wrong. Capriati didn't care. The grunting was, in Capriati's words, "pissing me off." And damned if she was going to stand for it simply because the player on the other side of the net was Monica Seles. After losing the match, Capriati was still livid. "That was the loudest she's ever been," she complained. "I know that everybody grunts. I grunt. But I don't absolutely scream when I hit the ball."

If the WTA tour has been likened to a high school -- awash in cliques, gossip and jealousies -- calling out Seles was the equivalent of dissing Miss Popularity. Capriati, reformed but ever the rebel, was still unapologetic months later. "I was trying to win," she says. "Look, I'm going to do what I have to do. Good players can be soft. Great ones can't."

Great. The journey was especially torturous, but Jennifer Capriati is finally great. In 2001 she at last exceeded the expectations that were foisted upon her a decade ago, when she was hailed as the heiress apparent to Chris Evert. At age 25, after years of personifying burnout and too-much-too-soon, she blossomed to win two majors and seize the No. 1 ranking from Martina Hingis, who'd held the position for 209 weeks. "It was like a movie: Will Jennifer make it back?" says Hingis. "We knew that she had a ton of talent, but I don't think anyone would have guessed the story would have gone like this."

Everyone loves a comeback. Capriati's is particularly appealing because she wrote the script on her own terms, defiant and ruthless. The experts were right, after all, about her ability to play superlative tennis, but so wrong about her disposition. Cast as the happy-go-lucky kid whose appeal would transcend the sport, she turned out to be as tough as a $2 steak. As she does when she plays, Capriati fires away without inhibition off the court. It's not that she's among the legion of prima donnas on tour -- in fact, she's generally pleasant. It's just that she's past caring what the world thinks of her.

"I've been criticized for so much of my life. What more can I do wrong?" she says. "I've had a lot of issues that make you hesitant to be yourself. It's taken me a while to feel comfortable and be comfortable showing my face. But this is my true self. I finally decided: I'm just going to let it fly."

The sports world is saturated with stories of athletes who make triumphant returns, but Capriati's has a twist. She didn't overcome the fates dealing her a lousy hand; she was responsible for her trouble. Yet in an odd way this makes her comeback all the more heroic. There was plenty of blame to go around, but ultimately Capriati mucked things up herself. In the end, she extricated herself, too.

"I'm in charge now," she says. "This is my life I'm living."

A tennis prodigy, who appeared with Evert in Tennis magazine at age eight, Capriati turned pro in the spring of 1990, a few weeks shy of her 14th birthday. Hitting ground strokes with a violent torque, she reached the final of her first tournament. She charmed Madison Avenue with her gum-smacking teenage mannerisms and endearingly naive Valley Girl speak. By year's end she had a top 10 ranking and $6 million in endorsements with companies ranging from Rolex to Oil of Olay.

By the time she was 17, she was crashing as spectacularly -- and as publicly -- as she had ascended. Wilting under the weight of expectations, her tennis regressed. She nearly broke down on the court after losing in the first round of the 1993 U.S. Open to the 37th-ranked Leila Meshki. Beset by adolescent claustrophobia and shocked by the breakup of her parents' marriage, she went into full rebel mode. In December 1993 she was cited for shoplifting a ring from a Tampa mall. Less than five months later, after moving away from home and settling in South Florida, she was arrested at a Coral Gables fleabag motel. Though she was busted for marijuana possession (and did multiple court-ordered stints in drug rehab), others in the hotel room, who were at the small party which Capriati allegedly bankrolled, were charged with possession of heroin and crack cocaine. Suddenly Capriati's disconsolate, puffy face, raccoon eyes and pierced nose were all featured on a ubiquitous mug shot: Case No. 94-9819.

Having lost interest in tennis -- her sponsors and most of her entourage having long since vanished -- Capriati spent her days holed up in her room. Thoughts of suicide did not escape her. "She spent a lot of time in darkness," says her mother, Denise. Her father, Stefano, encouraged her to get back to tennis. In the winter of 1996 Capriati started a fitful series of comeback attempts, but her self-esteem was shot to hell. In her absence a brigade of concussive ball strikers, such as Lindsay Davenport and Venus and Serena Williams, had infiltrated women's tennis, making the field deeper than ever. Overweight and out of shape, ranking a dismal 50th, Capriati gave serious thought to quitting altogether and getting on with life.

"I was questioning so much in my life," she says. "Why is this happening? Why are so many people who don't know me criticizing me? I wanted to come out of my shell, but I wasn't sure yet. I didn't want to get hurt."

Slowly but steadily she emerged from her carapace of fear and self-loathing. In the spring of 1999 she won her first title in more than six years, beating four higher-ranked players. By early 2000 Capriati had made immense strides and had reached the semifinals of the Australian Open, but she slid back again. Distracted by injuries and a turbulent romance with Xavier Malisse, then an underachieving player on the men's tour, Capriati abruptly split with her coach, Harold Solomon, and enlisted Stefano as a replacement. Meanwhile, Denise was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. Capriati ended the year with a desultory loss to Anna Kournikova (never a good sign) and failed to achieve her goal of finishing in the top 10. "I was getting no satisfaction out of tennis," she says. "For whatever reason, the results weren't coming. People said, 'Look how far you've come,' but I felt I was wasting my time. Finally I was like, Do this thing right, or don't do it."

She returned to Florida at the end of the season and summoned her trainer, Karen Burnett, to whip her into shape. While the other players were vacationing, Capriati spent the winter in the gym, in the pool and on the track. When she showed up for the 2001 season, she looked like a Method actress who had gotten her body into shape for a part. "She walked into the locker room," recalls Davenport, "and it was like, Uh, Jennifer, is that you?" The linebacker arms, tight stomach and vastly improved stamina helped Capriati's tennis. More important, her new body set in motion a self-perpetuating cycle. "When Jennifer feels better about herself, she plays better," says Denise. "When she plays better, she feels better about herself."

This newly bolstered self-assurance carried over to the rest of her life. The likes and ya knows, earmarks of youthful insecurity, disappeared from her conversations. She stopped dwelling on her breakup with Malisse. ("My racquet is now my Prince Charming," she says.) The baggy clothes were replaced with skintight, belly-baring numbers. Dave Matthews, not Led Zeppelin, blares from the CD player in her Range Rover. Once a shrine to all things Goth, Capriati's bedroom in her home in Wesley Chapel, Fla., is now Ian Schrager-hip, dominated by oversized furniture and upbeat colors. "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual," she says, "and after all the darkness, the light started shining."

When capriati coldcocked a backhand return past Martina Hingis on match point and won the Australian Open last January, her transformation from cautionary tale to fairy tale was complete. The agents and sponsors could breathe a sigh of relief. Stefano, the coach, long accused of having driven his daughter to the brink, was exonerated. "If Jennifer had quit the sport then and there," says John McEnroe, "it would still have been the sports story of the decade."

When she returned home there was no victory bender, no vacation, no talk-show circuit. After a day to get over jet lag she was back in the gym and on the practice court, sweat rivering down her back. "People were afraid that once I tasted success I would lose the motivation," she says. "But I learned that it's the opposite: You want to keep it going."

At the next major, the French Open, she wiped the court with Hingis and Serena Williams to make the final. Capriati played a miserable first set against Belgian upstart Kim Clijsters. While at one time this would have been her cue to fold, this time it galvanized her. After coming within two points of losing, she prevailed 12-10 in the third set, a testament both to her physical strength and her competitive grit. Somewhere along the line she had acquired the taste for combat.

Capriati came to Wimbledon halfway to a Grand Slam -- the ultimate achievement in tennis. In the quarterfinals she was down a set and 3-5, 0-30 to Serena Williams. She steeled herself, reeling off seven straight games, and she eventually took the match with a go-for-broke ace. Afterward, when Williams blamed the loss on an ailment, Capriati declined to play nice. "It happens every time I play her," she said, rolling her eyes. Capriati lost her next match but was scarcely upset. "I'm happy with the way the year has gone so far."

This newly happy, tough Jennifer Capriati doesn't care to visit the past. Those hoping for a play-by-play of what went down in that seedy hotel room nearly eight years ago will be disappointed. She refers to her downfall only abstractly -- "a path of quiet rebellion," "tough times" and "old news" are her euphemisms of choice -- and to the dismay of some, she has never shown remorse. She simply doesn't care.

Yet she has taken pains to avoid her previous mistakes. Before, she allowed herself to be pulled like a wishbone by sponsors, agents and other corporate slicks. These days her only sponsors are tennis-related ones. "She has turned down millions in endorsements, some from companies that only want her to wear patches on her arm when she plays," says one tennis agent. "It's unheard of, but to her it's not worth the hassle." Before, she traipsed all over the globe to play exhibitions, faxing her homework from sterile hotel rooms in Japan, Germany and Mexico. These days she limits her playing schedule to tournaments. Before, she was a media darling. These days she rarely gives one-on-one interviews and, to the tour's dismay, has turned down countless invitations to chat with Dave, Jay and Regis.

"I don't care about the stardom and the hype," she says flatly. "The tennis is what matters to me. I look back on this year, and I'm relieved, I'm happy, I'm proud. I guess it all makes for a good story, but it's not like it's over yet."

For features on more great athletes -- including Madonna, Alissa Wykes of the National Women's Football League and the acrobats of Cirque du Soleil -- check out Sports Illustrated Women's December/January issue, on newsstands now.

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