It was all going to be so easy. That's what everyone thought back when Jennifer Capriati was young and fresh. Championships seemed inevitable for the Fort Lauderdale schoolgirl, a Chris Evert wannabe who learned the game from Evert's dad, Jimmy, and pounded the hardest ground strokes anyone had seen. She collected wins like Barbie dolls, popping her gum and grinning. In 1990, at age 14, Capriati became the youngest girl ever to be ranked in the top 10, and she cruised into the French Open semifinals, becoming the youngest to advance so far at a Grand Slam tournament. She was going to be the next big American thing. Everyone said so.
Endorsements, magazine covers: All the treasures of the modern age were laid at Capriati's feet. No one bothered to ask if any of it was good for her. For what no one knew about Capriati then—what no one really would know until 4:58 p.m., Paris time, last Saturday—was that at her core, she needs a fight. Capriati responds best to adversity, not ease. So on Saturday, at the tennis-old age of 25, Capriati, the onetime troubled teen who in the last two years has clawed her way back to the top, again buried herself in a hole from which to clamber out. After a first set in which she demonstrated little more than frayed nerves, the heavily favored and fourth-ranked Capriati righted herself, engaged No. 12 seed Kim Clusters in a mesmerizing final set and, with a 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 victory in the French Open final, fulfilled the promise she had shown on this same court more than a decade ago.
Then, after becoming the first American woman since Evert in 1986 to win in Paris, Capriati walked up to the podium to find Evert herself waiting to present the trophy. "I never thought I'd be standing here 11 years later, after playing my first time here when I was 14 years old," Capriati told the crowd. "Really, I'm just waiting to wake up from this dream."
Don't pinch her yet. After answering her own doubts about her fortitude with a three-set quarterfinal win over Serena Williams and then rolling over No. 1 Martina Hingis in the semifinals, Capriati emerged as the most focused force in the women's game. Better yet, with her title runs at Roland Garros and, before that, at the Australian Open—the first Aussie-French double since Monica Seles achieved it in 1992—Capriati has become a threat to complete the game's first Grand Slam since Steffi Graf's in 1988. Of the four Slam surfaces, the slow red clay of Roland Garros presented the stiffest challenge to Capriati's high-octane game. She'll enter the speedy precincts of Wimbledon as the favorite, and the hard courts at the U.S. Open are her best surface. "I think she'll win one [more] Grand Slam [event] for sure," Clijsters said.
That this is the buzz hovering about Capriati is astounding. Back in her darkest days, in 1994, she declared herself to be self-loathing and suicidal. The difference between Capriati then and now is the difference between Girl, Interrupted and Sleeping Beauty. On her first Wednesday at Roland Garros this year, Capriati smiled wistfully and announced a Disneyfied desire "to find my Prince Charming."
That took the tour's most unpredictable Grand Slam event in a new direction. Love was in the air. By the time the fortnight had ended, TV screens were saturated with shots of Jennifer's divorced parents, Denise and Stefano, sitting side by side and hugging after her wins. Men's champion Gustavo Kuerten, who on Sunday won his third French Open, with a 6-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-0 victory over Alex Corretja, conjured up the tournament's most apt image. After surviving a match point to win a fourth-round marathon against qualifier Michael Russell, he used his racket to carve a heart—a valentine to the French fans—in the clay of Court Phillippe Chatrier, then kneeled and blew two kisses. Following the final he took it one step further, carving another heart and stretching out inside it.
Kuerten joins greats Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, the only other men to have won at least three French titles in the Open era. Kuerten arrived in Paris with a 24-3 record on clay in 2001, and his romps over former champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinals and the fast-rising Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semis gave pause only because of their mastery. But it was Capriati's victory, and her run over the last two years, that told a tale of things larger than tennis. "What she did is an example for everybody," Stefano said. "All families have [problems], but with love you can always come back."
Well, with love, hard work and Capriati's embrace of a challenge. She battled a bad reputation, being cited for shoplifting in 1993 and arrested for marijuana possession in '94, and she entered drug rehab soon afterward. She lost lucrative endorsement deals and, in 1995, suffered through her parents' divorce. Over the last year Capriati has seen her mother stricken with thyroid cancer, skin cancer and recurring hip ailments that forced Denise to skip the Australian Open and undergo hip-replacement surgery. During the recovery Jennifer was always there, holding up Denise in the shower, helping her dress, keeping her spirits high. "I couldn't do the things I wanted to do," says Denise, "and at times you go on a pity party and say, 'I don't have any more energy.' Jennifer would hear none of it. 'Mom,' she would say, 'we've fought bigger battles than this.' "
By the time she hit Paris, Jennifer had the drill down. Accompanied by her 21-year-old brother, Steven, as well as Denise and Stefano, Jennifer did no sightseeing and kept telling her mother, "Only the strong survive." On the morning of the final Jennifer turned to Steven and said, "Time to do what we came here to do."
After a dismal first set against Clijsters, Capriati willed herself back into the match, snapping to herself, "Start over again!" Every time things seemed to be leaning her way, however, Capriati squandered the opportunity. Three times in the third set she served for the match, but Clijsters, 18 and playing in her first Grand Slam final, pressed with crushing forehands and indefatigable retrieving. Four times in the final set Clijsters came within two points of the match, and it was then that Capriati revealed her mettle. "I was fighting till the end," she said.