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Still Caught in a . . . : Whirlwind : Jennifer Capriati, Once Happy at 13, Now Sullen at 19 With Tennis Career on Hold

January 19, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is an inescapable adjective when discussing the intriguing and confounding career of tennis player--or is it former tennis player?--Jennifer Capriati. The word is dysfunctional, and it applies to Capriati, her family, her business handlers, the leaders of her sport and, finally, a life that metamorphosed from fairy tale to horror story.

Long before her dream spun out into drugs and despair, Capriati was marketed as that uniquely American phenomenon, a "can't-miss kid." Although no one has missed the opportunity to profit from her, Capriati has thus far missed out on happiness.

Her story began so well. She turned pro in 1990, when she was 13, and reached the final of the first tournament she entered. The next year she went on a "youngest-ever" binge in the Grand Slam tournaments. At 16, Capriati beat Steffi Graf for the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics.

Capriati's appeal, though, was never wholly dependent on how well she played tennis. Even when her court success was modest, her impact as a cash cow was significant. After only one year as a professional, Capriati was named by Forbes magazine as one of the 40 highest-paid athletes in the world. At her commercial peak, she was pulling in $4.5 million a year. She is believed to have earned $20 million in her abbreviated career.

That money machine has been dismantled. Now 19 and living in seclusion, Capriati is the subject of tennis' special form of hysterical speculation. As when stabbing victim Monica Seles was poised to return to the sport, the tennis world is clamoring to know what Capriati has been doing since she played her last match 14 months ago--and if she plans to play again.

No one is talking. Barbara Perry, Capriati's agent, would not comment for this story, but when speaking on a conference call last week she relented. Her terse response was in keeping with the tight-lipped approach of those around Capriati.

"She is practicing, but she is not making any decisions yet," Perry said. "No one is putting any pressure on her. I wait for her phone call, if and when it comes."

Capriati's situation has inadvertent eccentric overtones. She is said to go about in disguises. There are fleeting glimpses and brief sightings. There have been surprise appearances, the latest last summer at a Hall of Fame dinner where Chris Evert, Capriati's onetime role model and the teen queen of her day, implored Capriati to "come back to the game."

Why in the world should she? The game and the greed of those in it were at least partly responsible for her slide from cover girl to Just Say No poster girl.

The world at large got its first inkling of Capriati's decline in December 1993, when she was accused of stealing a $15 ring from a department store in Tampa, Fla. Capriati said she had been trying on rings and inadvertently walked away from the store with it. But she was cited for shoplifting.

Six months later, she was arrested in a cheap hotel room in Coral Gables, Fla., where she and others had allegedly been using drugs. Capriati was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Two teenagers arrested with her were charged with possession of crack cocaine and heroin.

The next day, the world gawked at an entirely different Capriati when her police mug shot was reproduced, showing a spaced-out teenager with a puffy face, raccoon eyes and a nose ring.

Her parents' response to their daughter's arrest on the shoplifting charge had been to send her to a psychiatric hospital for a two-week evaluation. She emerged from her involuntary stay bitter and angry.

After the marijuana arrest she underwent a court-administered drug rehabilitation program for 23 days. Capriati told the New York Times that she had considered suicide.

So what had happened to change a smiling, engaging 13-year-old into a surly, distrustful 19-year-old?

Here's Stefanie Tolleson, a player agent from the International Management Group, speaking before the age eligibility commission of the WTA Tour:

"We all have responsibility to create a healthy environment in which players can perform to the best of their ability without sacrificing normal physiological, psychological and sociological growth.

"It is that responsibility that we believe is necessary to solving one of the key problems facing women's tennis today--that a child of 13 or 14 years has a physical ability to compete effectively on the women's professional tennis circuit. With that ability comes interest [also known as pressure] from the media, manufacturers, agents and most importantly, whether they realize it or not, from the parents."

Tolleson, a former pro, knows whereof she speaks. She represents Seles, who was signed by IMG at 16. IMG also recruited Russian prodigy Anna Kournikova at 10 and signed her when she was 12.

Capriati and other teenage tennis stars have been thrust from cradle to crucible with little guidance, other than advice on stroke selection. Capriati's parents weren't the first to quit their jobs and make their child the family breadwinner.

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