It was a often bumpy road, filled triumph and struggle, but Jennifer Capriati takes her rightful place among the best in tennis as a 2012 inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Jennifer was arguably the most heralded and hyped young phenom in tennis history and one of the most heralded in all of sports. Possibly only Chris Evert was as hyped in tennis as Capriati. Maybe. At the age of 13, she reached the final of the 1990 Virginia Slim of Florida in Boca Raton, losing to future and fellow Hall of Famer Gabriela Sabatini. She would build on that early success with victories on the WTA tour leading to up to her Gold Medal at the 1992 Olympics at the age of 16, defeating tennis legend Steffi Graf in the final. But then things would take a turn for the worse as she would walk away from the game with burnout. During her time away she was arrested twice. As famous as her game on the court was her police mug shot splattered across every newspaper (which I will not post here, rather sticking to Hall of Fame pictures).
However, as quick as we can be to tear somebody down for their shortcomings and mistakes, we should be equally as eager to applaud their recovery and redemption. Jennifer Capriati was down, but she is a fighter. And fighters get back up and keep fighting. First, she pulled her life together. That was more important than tennis. But pulling her life together allowed her to pull her tennis game from the ashes. After only playing 1 match in 1994 and none in 1995, Jennifer came back to the tour full time in 1996. To be honest, few thought the promise she showed as a teenager would come to a successful fruition in the second phase of her career. She showed flashes of good play, but nothing to make one think she would ever reach #1. However, after 3 years without a title in her comeback, and 6 years without a title overall, she won 2 times in 1999. She won again in 2000, despite fighting Achilles and elbow injuries that year causing her to miss time. Then came the moment tennis fans thought they would see years earlier. Jennifer beat Monica Seles, Lindsey Davenport and Martina Hingis on the way to her first Major, the 2001 Australian Open.
Jennifer followed that breakthrough by winning Roland Garros. Her 1-6 6-4 12-10 victory over Kim Clijsters was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, women’s final in French Open history. She would reach the world #1 ranking in October of 2001 and finish the year #2. She successfully defended her Australian Open championship by again defeating Martina Hingis in 2002. Capriati was awarded the 2002 ESPY for Comeback Player of the Year and the 2002 Laureus Award for Sportswoman of the Year. Jennifer finished her career plagued by injuries, but nevertheless with a Hall of Fame resume; a world #1 ranking, 3 Majors, 14 WTA titles, an Olympic Gold Medal, 3 Fed Cup titles.
It was fitting that Jennifer chose Monica Seles to introduce her at her induction. Monica and Jennifer were really the two players that brought what Mary Carillo calls “big babe tennis” into the game. They are the template that set the mold for what would become the women’s game to follow. I remember seeing them play live against each other at the 1991 Advanta Championships of Philadelphia (which no longer exists, unfortunately). Watching several matches that week, when Monica and Jennifer played…it was like they were playing a different game than any of the other players. Even the sound of their rackets striking the ball was different. Instead of a pop, it was like an explosion. Some shots were even tough to follow clearly. Now, 90% of players strike the ball like Seles and Capriati did back then. Those two also turned the return of serve into an offensive shot on the women’s side. Besides their games, Jennifer and Monica shared the experience of having careers divided by time away from the game. As great as both were, Monica being among the greatest ever, tennis fans are left to wonder what each might have done had they not had their primes interrupted.