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Capriati's feel-good story steals show

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001


Pete Sampras is growing old. Andre Agassi is growing impatient. Yep, there are a million stories in the city.

Venus Williams wants to win. Or she wants Serena to win. She'll know just as soon as Dad finishes the script.

Tim Henman reminds everyone he is British. Greg Rusedski swears he is, too, even if his mom accidentally gave birth to him while she was in Canada.

Jeff Tarango has worked on his backhand. His girlfriend has worked on her uppercut.

Yep, there certainly are a lot of stories to this year's Wimbledon. Which, in case you work for one of the British tabloids, comes in handy, inasmuch as it gives the editors something to put underneath the endless pictures of Anna Kournikova.

(I know what you are thinking. Kournikova has withdrawn from Wimbledon with a bad foot. That won't matter to the British tabs. Usually, Kournikova is only officially at Wimbledon for a match, maybe two, but the photos go on all tournament long. This year, I understand the Sun also has a contest: You Can Help Heal Anna's Foot by Giving Her Mouth to Mouth Resuscitation. Details, Page 3.)

Always, it is like this at Wimbledon. Players walk through the gate, and tennis becomes relevant again. People discover the purity of a game with such a defined geography and such an undefined time element. At the start of the tournament, it is as if the fans know Sampras and Agassi, and for what it's worth, the rest of the field might as well have come right out of Saturday's NHL draft. By the end, they are arguing drop shots.

This time, however, there is a difference.

This time, there is only one story at Wimbledon.

This time, the tournament belongs to Jenny.

Jennifer Capriati, survivor, has captured us all. She is happy again, smiling again. And if you do not want to see it continue, if the story does not somehow bring you warmth, then you are poorer for it.

She is traveling the golden highway. She has won the Australian, and she has won the French. If she can win this, if she can survive the field and the draw and the grass courts and the tabloids and umpires and the rain and the food and the pressure and the crowds and the questions and the bad bounces, just that, then the only thing standing between her and a Grand Slam will be the U.S. Open.

We hereby interrupt all pretense at objectivity to add: Go, Jenny.

By and large, all of us love comeback stories. Most times, however, what a comeback story involves is a very rich athlete struggling to get his ankle well again so he can replenish his bank account in order to purchase more Ferraris. Sometimes the athlete, such as Agassi, has to come back from allowing his sport to fall on his own list of priorities. Too many times, what athletes are coming back from is their own listless efforts.

Capriati's story is better. She came back from being lost.

There are two images of Capriati that continue to linger. One is of the smiling teenager, kissing a gold medal on a brilliant day in Barcelona. She was 16 then, and you could not look without imagining the wonder that lay in front of her.

The other is the police photo with the vacant, hollow stare. No, Capriati wasn't the first teenager to lose her way and do stupid things for stupid reasons. But when you have felt an athlete's joy, and then you see that something has vacuumed all the wonder out of her, you cannot help but feel the loss. You saw the photo, and you could not help but imagine, once again, what lay in front of her.

History tells us you do not recover from that. Not fully. Sports are about commitment, and if you lack it, the game will go on without you. And so women's tennis went on without Capriati, who seemed destined to be remembered for what she squandered.

Who could have suspected anything different? For the most part, women's tennis stars establish themselves as teenagers, and when they fade, they do not return. Capriati was only 20 when she started her comeback, but she had been away for three years, and it showed. Even when she was successful, the popular way to think was that she would come back and hover somewhere in the top 20. Which is not, by the way, a horrible life. After all, who goes away and then reclaims the life that could have been.

Capriati has.

One of these days, perhaps, Capriati will tell her story, in all its details, and it should be required reading in high schools. She will talk of how bad it became, and why, and how wonderful it was to fight her way back. She'll talk about hope, and how she managed to hang on to it.

For now, she has a tournament to play. If things break just right, she might have to play Serena Williams, Martina Hingis and Venus Williams in her final three matches.

Time was, that would have seemed impossible.

Now, you only wonder if the Sun can find photos of Capriati posing with Kournikova.

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