Jennifer Capriati is a former professional tennis player, who in 1990 became the youngest player to ever be ranked in the Women's Tennis Association top ten. A gifted athlete from the time she was born, Capriati began watching her father play tennis as a toddler, beginning lessons by the time she was in kindergarten. After moving to Florida, she started taking lessons from Jimmy Evert, the father of former tennis star Chris Evert. In 1990 she made her professional debut at just 13 years old, winning her first professional tournament in Puerto Rico later that year. After several personal struggles including drug possession she took a break from the sport, returning in 2001 with an incredible comeback. She has won 14 professional tournaments throughout her career.
Tennis player Jennifer Capriati was born on March 29, 1976, in New York. Her mother, Denise, was a flight attendant, and her father, Stefano, was a former Italian professional soccer player turned movie stuntman turned tennis instructor. The Capriatis decided to move to Long Island, New York before having kids so that their children would be American citizens.
Family legend holds that Jennifer Capriati began playing tennis while still in the womb. Approximately 17 hours before her birth, Stefano had taken Denise out to play tennis. "He knew she would be a tennis player before she was even born," her mother later said. Capriati was a precociously gifted athlete from the time she was an infant. She learned to swim before she learned to crawl and was able to swing all the way across a set of monkey bars before she could walk.
As a young toddler, she played on the side of the tennis courts, chasing down balls during her father's hitting sessions. Stefano began giving his daughter tennis instruction when she was 3 years old, and her prodigious talent immediately became apparent. After less than a year of playing the game -- all before she began kindergarten -- she could sustain long rallies and return balls shot from a ball machine.
When Jennifer Capriati was 4 years old, the family moved to Lauderhill, Florida, so that she could play tennis year round. Jimmy Evert, an acclaimed tennis instructor and the father of tennis superstar and former child prodigy Chris Evert, lived in nearby Fort Lauderdale, and the Capriatis asked him to begin teaching their daughter. Although Evert initially refused, saying he could not teach such a young child, once he saw her play he immediately changed his mind.
For the next five years, Capriati took lessons from Evert and continued to develop her sensational talents. By the time Capriati was 10 years old, she had run out of competition in her hometown of Lauderhill. "She was beating every player in town," Evert recalled later, including skilled adult men.
Child Tennis Star
In pursuit of challenging competition, the Capriatis moved again, this time to Wesley Chapel, Florida, near the Saddlebrook Tennis Center, a training facility for many of the world's best junior players run by legendary coach Harry Hopman. Upon her arrival at Saddlebrook, Capriati began entering junior tennis competitions and immediately learned she could dominate opponents several years her senior.
In 1989, at the age of 13, she became the youngest player in history to win the French Open junior title. She followed that by winning the U.S. Open junior title as well as the U.S. Open and Wimbledon junior doubles titles in the same year.
A year later, in March 1990, still only 13 years old, Capriati made her professional debut in the Virginia Slims tournament held in Boca Raton, Florida. In her very first match, she dismantled 10-year veteran Mary Lou Daniels in straight sets. Later that day, she played her first professional doubles match alongside the 46-year-old tennis legend Billie Jean King.
Although King and Capriati lost in the second round, in the singles tournament Capriati advanced all the way to the finals before finally losing to world No. 3 Gabriela Sabatini. Capriati's miraculous debut caused a sensation in the tennis world. "This wasn't a debut," said tennis great Ted Tinling. "It was a premiere!"
Within months, Capriati won her first professional tournament, the 1990 Puerto Rico Open. A year later, in 1991, she reached the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona she defeated Steffi Graf to take home the gold medal. She was 16 years old, had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and dozens of other magazines, surpassed $1 million in career winnings and earned millions more in sponsorships from Prince racquets, Oil of Olay, and the Italian sportswear line Diadora.
Comeback and Struggles
But she was also beginning to feel overwhelmed by the pressures and temptations of being a teenage sports phenomenon. By 1993, Capriati's career and life started spiraling out of control. After an early exit from the U.S. Open that fall, she went on hiatus from the pro tennis tour. She drank heavily and experimented with drugs. In December, she was arrested in a mall for shoplifting a $15 bracelet, and several months later she was arrested again for possession of marijuana. Her now-infamous mug shot depicts a baggy-eyed, sullen and depressed 17-year-old nearly unrecognizable from the fist-pumping, smiling teen who had taken the world by storm a few years earlier.
Although she returned to professional tennis in 1996, Capriati spent the next several years playing like a shadow of her former self. She enjoyed occasional highlights, reaching the quarterfinals or semifinals of tournaments ever so often, but was hardly the dominant force her precocious early successes seemed to predict.
Then in 2001, seemingly out of nowhere, Capriati defeated defending champion Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals of the 2001 Australian Open and went on to shock world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the finals to claim her first major championship. A few months later, she won back-to-back majors by defeating teenage sensation Kim Clijsters in the French Open final. In 2002, she defended her Australian Open title to win her third major championship and become the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Hers is one of the most impressive comebacks in sports history, and in 2002 she was honored with the ESPY Award for Best Comeback Athlete.
Nevertheless, Capriati's comeback ultimately proved short-lived. Her 2003 and 2004 campaigns were plagued by increasingly frequent and severe injuries, and at the end of the 2004 season a right shoulder injury that two separate surgeries failed to repair forced her into early retirement.
Capriati largely disappeared from public sight for the next six years. She unfortunately plunged back into the spotlight in June 2010 when reports surfaced that she had been checked into Florida hospital due to a prescription drug overdose. While the news rekindled unpleasant memories of her teenage battles against drugs and depression, her family said that the overdose was a simply an accident. Capriati has since made a full recovery.
Capriati has never been married and does not have children.
Whatever its origins, Capriati's 2010 hospital visit prompted an outpouring of support from former mentors, friends and opponents in the tennis world who empathized all too well with her struggles with youth, fame, drugs and injuries. Capriati's childhood idol, Chris Evert, commented, "To have had so much success, highs, adrenaline, focus, attention, adulation on one at such a young age, and then to have it whisked away from under your feet in a nanosecond is debilitating and damaging."
Another former teenage tennis star, Andrea Jaeger, added, "Success insulates you from what's normal. You don't learn skills to cope with ordinary situations." Nevertheless, Capriati's mentor and former doubles partner, Billie Jean King, expressed confidence that Capriati will, like she always has, reemerge from adversity stronger than ever. "She's a fighter on the court and in life," King said of Capriati. "How she plays tennis is pretty revealing about her character."
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