Right around Christmas time each year, when I discuss my baseball Hall of Fame ballot with friends, the question arises for each candidate: Can you write the history of the sport without this person? If so, perhaps he's not quite worthy of induction.
The history of tennis cannot be written without Jennifer Capriati.
Her story reads like fiction, and there were times when the women's tour dearly wished that had been so. This was a girl who scaled the heights and rummaged in squalor, lending the distinct impression that she preferred the latter. The fact that Capriati rebuilt the shattered pieces of her life, as a scarred but triumphant woman, marks a career of historical significance.
When Capriati graces the induction ceremony July 14 in Newport, R.I., she'll be remembered as a teenager of legendary skill, a tragic case of tennis burnout, and a three-time Grand Slam champion -- quite a package. And yet, there's a bigger picture. The women's tour has become a more sensible, adult-driven sport in the wake of its age-limit restrictions. In retrospect, Capriati's career is largely responsible.
Capriati was hardly the only girl in her early teens to gain too much stardom, too fast. Such distasteful episodes were rather common in the 1970s and 80s, and a number of deeply disillusioned girls dropped out of the sport. But Capriati's stardom became the centerpiece: On the cover of Sports Illustrated at the tender age of 13, having stormed through a veteran field to reach the final of her first professional tournament, the 1990 Virginia Slims in Boca Raton, Fla.
It was all so wrong -- and so thrilling. This would be the girl who could withstand the pressure, whose bubbly personality would see her through, whose punishing groundstrokes -- every bit as forceful as her idol and mentor, Chris Evert -- would be her greatest ally. "The time is right to have a new star. She can definitely be the leading person in the 1990s," said Pam Shriver, then 27 and ranked 14th in the world. "She was born to do this kind of work," said Mary Carillo, then early in her career as an analyst. "She's happy -- that's her secret weapon."
There wasn't a single sign to contrary, not at the start. Capriati handled press conferences with a wink and a smile, charming a highly forgiving audience. Evert, who became a worldwide star at 16 and charged through a Hall of Fame career without a hitch, had just retired. Pegging Capriati as her successor in the U.S. hierarchy, Evert said, "It's like we're starving for someone to come along and fill the void."
Even for those captivated by Capriati's powerful game, it seemed astonishing that she could reach the semifinals of the 1990 French Open (losing to eventual champion Monica Seles) at the age of 14. She and Seles had an epic battle in the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals before Seles prevailed, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (3). At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Capriati won the gold medal and defeated the great Steffi Graf for the first time in her budding career.
Capriati's Hall of Fame career by the numbers
"Endorsements, magazine covers: All the treasures of the modern age were laid at Capriati's feet," wrote S.L. Price in a June, 2001 Sports Illustrated piece. "No one bothered to ask if any of it was good for her."
As it turned out, Capriati wasn't at all like the steel-minded Evert or the implacable Graf. In a world of strong, articulate voices in women's tennis -- Shriver, Carillo, Zina Garrison, Martina Navratilova -- hers was not among them. Others catered easily to all the media demands and corporate obligations; Capriati was repulsed. She just wanted to be a teenager, hanging out with her friends and her dogs. And when she realized that simple life was slipping away, for good, she retreated into the particularly nasty world of teenage rebellion.
Picture the run-down motels and apartments of a seedy South Florida neighborhood, littered with slacker-grunge kids just looking to get righteously drunk and high. That became Capriati's world in 1993-94, and she damn well enjoyed it. So many fabled tennis stories were bathed in opulence and fantasy; this was real-life America, where wayward teenagers discover a thirst for the dark side. Capriati had some major wake-up calls -- cited for shoplifting, arrested for marijuana possession, hanging around kids using heroin and crack cocaine -- but saw no reason to change. She was 18, done with tennis, pretty much done with anything that would draw her back into the public spotlight. In the words of Marty Riessen, then the U.S. Fed Cup captain, "She just got really tired of tennis. Not just indifferent -- she came to despise it."
Video tribute: Capriati's best moments
It took a stint in drug rehabilitation, a reconnection with her parents and a dose of maturity for a sullen, overweight Capriati to pull herself out of the gutter. But such life-changing events don't happen overnight. She hesitatingly rejoined the tour in 1996, backed off a full schedule until '99, and didn't make any kind of grandiose statement until reaching the semifinals of the 2000 Australian Open.
It would be Melbourne, a year later, where Capriati could legitimately raise her arms in triumph. It was her first Grand Slam final, she had become a vision of fitness and resolve, and as she polished off a 6-4, 6-3 win over Martina Hingis in the final, she shook her opponent's hand, broke into tears and raced to hug her father, Stefano, in the players' box.
Thus completed one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports history, and Capriati made sure she would be well remembered, storming right into Paris to win the French Open (over Kim Clijsters, 12-10 in the third) and then defending her title at the 2002 Australian Open (a courageous three-set struggle against Hingis in extreme heat). She was the No. 1 player in the world at that point, a position she held for 17 weeks.
It wouldn't be accurate to suggest that Capriati returned to tennis as a demure, ever-generous person. She was kicked off the U.S. Fed Cup team by captain Billie Jean King in 2002, the result of petulant, insubordinate behavior that had all of her teammates, even the compassionate Seles, ripping her in public. Longtime tennis journalist Matt Cronin recalled Capriati storming out of the team hotel in Charlotte, N.C., screaming, "That f---ing b--ch just kicked me off the team."
So when the issue of character comes into play -- and it's a crucial element to Baseball Hall of Fame status, witness the scorned Pete Rose and Mark McGwire -- Capriati is hardly a shining light. I'd be curious to know how many voters cast her aside on that basis. Certainly not enough to make a difference, for it was Capriati's talent and inner strength that made her career so uniquely qualified.
Along the way, Capriati became linked with some historical landmarks. In defeating Serena Williams in a 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal, she was the beneficiary of so many inexcusably bad calls, the uproar led to the eventual installation of Hawk-Eye instant replay. And although Capriati lost a 2003 U.S. Open semifinal to Justine Henin, some recall that 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), after-hours marathon as the most compelling women's match they ever witnessed at the National Tennis Center.
Afterward, with the benefit of maturity and experience, the 27-year-old Capriati was able to say, "I gave it all I had. She did, too. It's not the end of the world. Worse things can happen. Before, I might have been more devastated. Now, instead of looking at myself as a failure, I see that I'm only human."
That might go down as the most touching, worldly summation Capriati ever voiced in public. A little more than a year later, disabled by a balky shoulder and other injuries, she announced her retirement with a career record of 430-176 and 14 singles titles.
In 1994, only months after the extent of Capriati's depravity went public, the women's tour changed its eligibility rules, limiting the number of tournaments players aged 14-17 could enter. As the WTA presses on into the heart of the 2012 season, we see no Capriatis, Andrea Jaegers or Mirjana Lucics, not in terms of a painfully young girl in free-fall descent. It's rare to find any teenagers in the top 100, and all of the tour's top players are seasoned, mature women with some perspective on life.
It took some very harsh lessons to reach this point, none more severe than the one absorbed by Capriati herself. As she is showered with affection in the coming weeks, let's hope she can look back knowing the whole crazy ride was worthwhile.