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Say cheese, Jennifer

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 3, 2002

WIMBLEDON, England -- Late on a rain-soaked English afternoon, a rarely seen phenomenon of nature occurred. Even the druids were taken by surprise.

Jennifer Capriati smiled.


It was a flicker at first, just a twitch around the corners of her mouth. And then it spread, unrestrained and unusual. As smiles go, it was a glorious thing indeed, for it has been some time since we have seen Capriati's teeth when they were not being bared.

Such is Capriati's latest incarnation: tennis grump. She glowers. She grimaces. She growls. Whatever she reaps, she does so grimly. There is no time for levity. There are no idle moments of reflection. She plays tennis with the same expression of a soldier taking a hill.

For now, it seems to be working for her. Capriati finished off Greece's Eleni Daniilidou to advance to today's Wimbledon quarterfinals, and she was forceful enough in the final stages to make you believe maybe, just maybe, she can handle the tag-team match that is the Williams sisters.

On the other hand, would it kill her to let us see that smile a little more often?

Capriati has been so many different things during her career, so many people. She has changed her image the way most of us change overcoats.

We have seen her precocious, and we have seen her rebellious. We have seen her career, her life, lying in tiny bits around her, and we have seen the darndest thing. We have seen her pick it up and put it back together.

Because of that, the world wants to love Capriati. She is a part of all of us. She has overcome herself, a struggle most of us make at one level or the other. We have seen her as the happy kid, as the troubled teen, as the resilient comeback story.

And what are we to make of her now?

What image fits?

Has she simply grown into a focused, intense player as she would have you believe? Or is she the diva she appeared to be after her recent tirade against Billie Jean King when she was tossed off the Federation Cup team? Is she determined to be in control or prone to get out of it? On the other side of the mask, is she as happy as the smiling girl we used to see?

"I don't worry about my image," Capriati said. "I'm just myself. What I've learned is no matter how you try to be, people of the press and everyone else is going to, you know, interpret it the way they want anyway.

"Regardless, no matter what you say or what you do. What's going to be thought is going to be thought."

Capriati offers a brief shrug. That's as close as you are going to get to the core of her these days. She does not so much answer questions as fend them off. If the question is more personal than, say, a cross-court backhand, she isn't interested. She does not divulge. She does not share.

Perhaps this is the residue of being Jenny. Perhaps she grew weary of newspapers when she saw her mug shot in them, and perhaps it scared her as much as the rest of us. Perhaps she grew weary of those who would pick the scab, constantly asking the questions of how deep and how difficult her problems were. Perhaps she feels her emotions are safer locked away.

Somewhere along the line, however, Capriati seemed to close off a portion of herself.

In human terms, that's a shame. Most of us would love to see Capriati as a guidepost, as someone willing to discuss the pitfalls that led to her destruction and the handholds that allowed her reconstruction. Failing that, we would at least like to see her enjoy her second chance. Capriati should be, as the song says, the happiest girl in the whole U.S.A. Shouldn't she?

The bust-up with King makes you wonder. A player's image always will suffer when confronting a legend, especially one trying to forge team kinship by banning individual agents and coaches from her practices. It's hard to fault King for that.

Capriati still doesn't see it that way. She says she has no apologies, no regrets for her actions.

And isn't it just nifty that you asked?

None of this demeans Capriati as a player. If you are going to imagine a Wimbledon in which neither of the Williams sisters wins, Capriati is the logical place for your wager. Most of the other players lack the serve or power to stand up to them. Capriati doesn't.

On the other hand, third is a tough place from which to win. If the competition goes according to seed, Capriati wouldn't have to beat just one Williams. She'd have to beat both, and she'd have to beat hard-serving Amelie Mauresmo in today's quarters to get the chance.

Maybe she can.

After playing a loose set against Daniilidou on Monday (the match was called by darkness at one set apiece), Capriati came back and made short work of her. Her serve was strong, her groundstrokes crisp. And Capriati always has been a fighter.

"It's always been part of me, especially the last few years of my life," she said. "I've really had to fight both on and off the court. I think they were just related in a lot of ways. What was going on off the court was showing on the court. Even when I was just trying to come back, I didn't feel the most confident and definitely had a lot of fear.

"I think it's just something you have or you don't have."

With Capriati, whomever she might be, you always could count on the grit. You can count on the fight.

Unfortunately, you can't always count on the smile.

It's a shame. It should be such a strong part of her game.

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