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As a person, Capriati comes back strongest

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001


We hoped, as Jennifer Capriati's tennis flame went cold at age 17, it was nothing uglier than a quick-to-be-cured fit of juvenile rebellion.

Unfortunately not.

We prayed, as Jenny went into a personal plunge, being arrested for marijuana possession, charged with shoplifting, followed by an even more frightening episode, discovery of a sweet-faced kid going bad as she cavorted with creeps who reeked of cocaine and heroin.

So severe was Capriati's dive, you wondered if the teen millionaire would survive to adulthood, much less ever again grasp a tennis racket with worldly sincerity.

Her athletic prime was a tragic inferno. Her life in spiraling jeopardy. Odds had to be 100-to-1 that Jenny would win another professional match.

It was maybe 1,000-to-1 against Stefano Capriati's out-of-control daughter ever again being a WTA champion. I mean, who was even thinking about tennis stuff?

Conquering at the Grand Slam plateau? In the state of chance, Nevada, that probably could've gotten you a million-to-1 bet in the mid-'90s.

All that is why Capriati's conquest 10 days ago at the Australian Open, in a week when most of us were mega-immersed in Super Bowl XXXV, ranks as a far more stunning, uplifting and courageous accomplishment than the Baltimore Ravens strangling all enemies in their NFL playoff path.

By 1994, at 18, Capriati was in rehab. Hope, while rekindled, was fragile for a prodigy who turned pro as an eighth-grader. From afar, you pulled for the young woman from Wesley Chapel, north of Tampa. Emotions all about her, having zip to do with tennis.

Jenny made some progress. She returned to her game in 1996, but with sporadic participation and hardly any success. Sharpness, physical and mental, was inadequate. Still, compared with her travails at 17, it was an hour of promise. We outsiders weren't seeing much of Capriati. Hearing even less. But, clearly, there was some grinding going on.

You've come a long way ...

Last time I saw Jenny in person was at Wimbledon. Seven months ago, she surprisingly made the final 16 in England before being overpowered by second-seeded Lindsay Davenport. Even so, there was little to suggest what was ahead for Capriati in Melbourne.

Her conditioning still seemed insufficient. Jenny huffed too much for a global tennis whiz. She couldn't run with Venus or Serena Williams, Davenport or Martina Hingis. Talking with the 24-year-old American, true maturity seemed an ongoing challenge.

Then, the Slam shocker.

Capriati, who knows a lot of meanings for down under, had played well enough since Wimbledon to be the 12th seed in Australia. But could she carry it any further? At 24, her tennis clock was ticking fast in an era when babies become champs.

Chances of a big Melbourne move seemed less than glorious, until Jenny began flattening people named Nagyova, Oremans, Pascual and Marrero. At that point, she advanced to celebrity wars.

Jenny would be far more ready than at 13, surely than at 17. Monica Seles was 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal prey. Davenport reappeared. A 6-foot-2 barrier. But it wouldn't be like at Wimbledon.

Jenny, trimmer and quicker now, put a 6-3, 6-4 hammer on Lindsay. All that was left was the Australian Open final. Facing the No. 1-ranked Hingis. That's all.

Martina got kayoed. It was better than Ali flooring Liston. Capriati, the formerly troubled Florida child, dominated 6-4, 6-3 against the best.

Her first Grand Slam trophy, so many years after it might've been expected of Capriati. For some reason, in the business of overcoming athletic odds, I thought about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

When Capriati flew home to Tampa, an 18-hour journey from Australia, the airport was empty. Only her mom, Denise, was there to meet Jenny and her father, Stefano. That was more than enough. A comeback family experiencing the moment of its lifetime.

It was Super Bowl Sunday. A mile away, within earshot, the Ravens were flooring the New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium with 72,000 patrons in the stands and 130-million watching on television. But, in so many ways, something even more worth cheering was going on at a Tampa International gate.

They've been through so much, these Capriatis. Learned a lot. Persevered. Rebounded. Jenny gets our further prayers, that the Australian Open winner is now in ample control of her life. Able to talk warmly and effectively with a once-domineering dad. Surely his education has also been abundant.

After her moment of Melbourne triumph, Jenny told Hingis, a fellow resident at Saddlebrook Resort, "I hope to be in many more finals with you. You've had lots. ... I'm glad I finally got to be in one."

Maybe it'll happen, but even if Capriati never again makes it to the Slam optimum, she will always have Australia 2001. Sure, a check for $473,385 went with it, but that's only superficially important.

What counts is that a troubled, quarrelsome, down-spiraling, endangered teen somehow found the guts and drive in 1994 to give pure life another opportunity to flower.

Capriati's personal cleansing and tennis rebirth, with dessert in Australia, are byproducts of a retracked soul. Keep it going, Jenny. Tennis, sure. Life, absolutely.

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