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A smashing return

Don’t think that Jennifer Capriati’s rise to No. 4 is the ending to her feel-good story.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


If a Hollywood producer were to film the story of Jennifer Capriati's life -- not that she plans to sell the rights any time soon, mind you -- it would end after January's Australian Open, with Capriati riding off into the sunset carrying her first Grand Slam trophy.

And it would be nonsense.

Capriati's story, you see, seems to be just beginning.

photo
[AP photo]
Analyst Mary Carillo said she didn't think Capriati, above, "could ever come back this far."
Eleven years after turning pro at 13 to unprecedented fanfare, eight years after the beginning of a personal and professional collapse that included her arrest on misdemeanor drug charges, and nearly seven years after her first comeback attempt, Capriati is No. 4 in the world -- her highest ranking.

Perhaps more amazing than the resurrection of her game is the near-universal agreement that, at 25, the Saddlebrook resident has the kind of power, fitness and fresh legs that can keep her near the top for many years, providing she stays healthy.

Physically healthy, that is. Mentally, Capriati says she is as strong as she ever has been.

As she heads overseas for a European swing that begins Monday with the German Open, she is viewed as a threat not only on the clay courts at Roland Garros but the grass courts of Wimbledon. Add that to her triumph on the hard courts of the Australian Open, and suddenly the girl everyone rooted for is a woman to be feared.

"This isn't sweet anymore," television analyst Mary Carillo said. "We've done sweet. I said it in the telecast, when she won the Australian Open, it was like the whole sport took a big, old humanity bath. And now, instead of her just going away after that, she continues to play really good ball.

"I've never been more delighted to be wrong about somebody. I just didn't think she could ever come back this far."

Capriati's rise and fall are well-documented.

The most lasting image of her troubled teen years is the police mug shot snapped seven years ago this month after her arrest in a Coral Gables motel for possession of marijuana.

Already anguished and stressed out, Capriati retreated. Promises of an impending comeback never quite materialized. For five years in the mid-1990s she played sporadically, when she played at all.

She became the universal example for what can go wrong when a girl turns pro too soon, a lesson for players such as Lindsay Davenport, who took on a full schedule only after finishing high school.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Capriati fell in love with tennis again.

By 1999, she was mounting an honest comeback, mostly due to a renewed commitment to fitness. She reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2000, but injuries -- her trainer said she overextended herself -- limited her. Still, by the end of the year she was ranked No. 14, up from No. 101 at the end of 1998.

Then, to prepare for the Australian Open in January, she stepped up her workouts, giving her endurance to match her powerful groundstrokes. In Australia she knocked off Monica Seles and Davenport on the way to the final, where she frustrated Martina Hingis by repeatedly running down her drop shots.

After a carefully planned break, Capriati reached the final of the Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne in March. She then took the Family Circle Cup title last month, this time beating Hingis on clay. The victory boosted her 2001 earnings to a tour-best $883,487.

"I am playing the greatest I have ever played," Capriati said at the Ericsson Open. "I think each match I just get stronger and just gain more confidence. Everything is working for me. I feel like I have a real all-around game and I do feel like I can beat anybody."

Only Andre Agassi, who captured the No. 1 ranking after falling well out of the top 100 in the mid-1990s, has a story that can compare. Though the circumstances surrounding their absences differ, Agassi and Capriati share an advantage others don't: Their time away from the tour kept them from wearing down their bodies and ultimately should extend their careers.

Indeed, Capriati's biggest concern now is avoiding the physical problems that often befall those with powerful games. To that end, trainer Karen Burnett of the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens tailors her workouts, focusing on power, endurance and bursts of speed. She trains strenuously, Burnett said, but "recovers just as hard."

"She has not reached her potential," Burnett said. "She has not found any limits. Every time we train, she discovers more about her strength, from the inside out. It's exciting. It's so much fun. ... It's a journey. We have no idea what the destination is.

"I haven't had discussions with her about how she felt years ago. But if she had a question (whether) she could play with the top 5, there isn't a question anymore."

Some things haven't changed. While Capriati has tried other coaches over the years, she is back to relying on her father, Stefano, whom she said she trusts "more than anybody." She has the same agent and remains a fixture at Saddlebrook the way she was a decade ago.

And though the media are clamoring to tell the happy story of her return, she still rarely grants an interview outside tournaments. ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale said she is just shy, that "there's a little bit of Roger Maris in her. ... (That didn't) make him any less of a hero, and it doesn't make Jennifer any less of a hero."

Tennis crowds, which always have pulled for her, seem to agree. They love her as much as they did when she was a prodigy.

"I don't think it's sympathy," Capriati said at the Ericsson. "They can just maybe relate to me in some way. ... Everyone has gone through their fair share of stuff."

Staying healthy, Burnett said, now is the only thing Capriati has to worry about. "I'll buy that," said Carillo, who said Capriati also has to take better care of her serve. "She can be up there for as long as she wants to be."

Drysdale agrees.

"There is no doubt in my mind about that," he said. "It's not clear to me what happened, but something happened and she got her act together.

"It almost makes you realize what women's tennis missed when she was out of the game."

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