Jennifer Capriati has something to say. Get out of her room. Also, get out of her life. Do you understand? Is there any electricity in your building? So what if she wears black nail polish, and skulls and crosses in her ears, and rings on all her fingers, and so many chains that she makes these kerchinking noises when she walks? She can't hear any of it—or you, man. All she can hear is the sound of a hundred screaming guitars. It's better than listening to, like, your parents.
At 16, you are what you wear. In her day at Garden City (N.Y.) High, Jennifer's mother, Denise, wore a black jacket, black skirt, black stockings and black boots. And you are what you listen to. Jennifer listens to Metallica or Guns N' Roses. Are they any worse than those 1960s balladeers Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs singing that timeless melody Wooly Bully? Nothing changes but the changes, man, as everybody but a teenager knows.
Here's what happens when a girl turns 16 years of age, as Jennifer will this Sunday. She shoots poisonous looks at her mother, who shakes her fist and says between clenched teeth, "I can't wait till you have kids!" She answers every question with an impudent "So?" She becomes extremely attitudinal. She begins gazing at the ball boys with curiosity. She slouches and smacks her gum. She leads an insurrection at her school, calling for a student council and a curfew extension. She develops an unerring radar for bull and for people who want something from her, which means just about everybody. She decides most of them are old and wrong. Mainly, they're in the way.
Capriati's turmoil was manifest even as she reached the semifinals of the Lipton International Players Championships last week in Key Biscayne, Fla., where she upset top-ranked Monica Seles 6-2, 7-6 before falling 6-2, 6-4 to Arantxa Sànchez Vicario in a desultory match a day later. In the final on Saturday, Sànchez Vicario beat Gabriela Sabatini 6-1, 6-4.
March 30, 1992
If you really want to send our Miss Capriati into a rage, call her current state of mind a phase. More accurately, it's a rite of passage that virtually every adult has experienced: teenage rebellion. "Her hormones are kicking in," says Denise.
Negotiating the trapped age between childhood and adulthood can render the sweetest of temperaments vile. But Capriati's adolescence is complicated by the fact that she is a star and a multimillionaire who turned professional at 13, won her first pro tournament at 14, reached the semifinals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at 15 and last month was the subject of a National Enquirer story proclaiming her a burnout. She is weary of the white-hot glare of the public eye and sick of being psychoanalyzed by everybody who follows tennis. In short, Capriati is tired, confused, sulky and trying to grow up.
"I think everyone goes through it, but I'm dealing with tennis, too," says Capriati. "Plus you've got the added pressure of trying to be accepted by your friends, dealing with math and chemistry teachers, and dealing with rules at home. I mean, it's a lot.
"Why does everyone care? I mean, everyone is so wrapped up in everyone else's lives. I understand up to a point, but enough is enough. People say, 'I know what she feels like.' I'm like, 'Hey, man, what do you know? You're in a totally different thing.' I don't tell you what's going on in your life or how you feel."
Fame and wealth—Capriati earned about $6 million on and off the court in 1991—can be a dangerous combination for anyone, especially a teenager. The costs of living the fast-forward life of a tennis pro are worth questioning, and Capriati is doing just that. Is trying to be No. 1 worth missing out on school and girlhood? Are adulation and money enough compensation for having to play out your adolescence and family dramas in the National Enquirer?
The Lipton was Capriati's first tournament in six weeks. She had taken a much-needed break after a troubled four-week trip to Australia and Japan that left her, as her mother acknowledges, "an unhappy camper." First, Jennifer suffered a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Sabatini at the Australian Open, where she had hoped to win her first Grand Slam title. Afterward, close to tears, she said of tennis, "It's becoming too serious."
Then, while trying to prepare for a chemistry midterm with a 40-page fax of material and working three hours a day with a tutor, she lost her first match at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo to 16-year-old Magdalena Maleeva, yelled at her father, Stefano, canceled her appearance at an exhibition in Gifu, Japan, and returned home to Saddlebrook, Fla., declaring that she was exhausted and homesick. Next came the Enquirer article, which claimed that Jennifer was unraveling in only her third year as a pro, that Stefano, according to sources on the tour, was driving her too hard and that her problems were so severe that the family had called in a therapist. Denise calls the story "garbage." Says Jennifer, "Don't the people who write that stuff have children?"
The truth of the matter is that Jennifer is feeling the weight of expectations on the tennis court, at home and at the Palmer Academy, a private school of 75 tennis prodigies in Saddlebrook, where she is in the 10th grade and carrying a full course load. Teachers at Palmer have said that Jennifer seems tired. "And she is," says Norman Palmer, headmaster of the academy. Her grades have slipped, although almost imperceptibly, from her usual straight A's. The mother of one top-10 American male player said to Denise, "Why don't you just take Jennifer out of school?"
But the Capriatis don't want to do that, and Jennifer doesn't want to leave. The suggestion was all too typical of the tennis world, in which the competition is becoming more and more intense. "Jennifer is struggling with a lot of things," says Palmer. "If she were 15 or 16 and not feeling these things, you'd say there's something wrong here. But actually it's a sign that she's alive and well."
It is getting harder to name a young tennis star who hasn't succumbed to the emotional and physical demands of the tour. Andre Agassi, who was a first-round loser at Upton, has seen his ranking drop from four to 14 in the past year. Since taking over the No. 1 ranking on Feb. 10, Jim Courier has failed to win any of the five tournaments he has entered. Courier, the defending Lipton champion, needed to reach the final to protect his ranking, but he lost 6-2, 6-4 to Michael Chang in the semifinals, thereby allowing Stefan Edberg to reclaim the top slot. Courier attributes his slump to the off-court demands of being No. 1. "My head has just been overloaded," he says.
Chang has only recently regained his equilibrium since becoming, at age 17 in 1989, the youngest men's French Open champion. Last summer he dropped as low as 28 on the computer. His 7-5, 7-5 victory over Alberto Mancini in the Lipton men's final on Sunday gave him his third tournament title of 1992 and pushed his ranking to No. 6.
Could any 15-year-old handle what Capriati has been asked to? Chris Evert's agent, Bob Kain of International Management Group, and Capriati's agent, John Evert, younger brother of Chris, met with the Capriatis in Saddlebrook four weeks ago to help the family arrange its priorities. Since then Denise has abandoned the idea of returning to work as a flight attendant. Jennifer has been given more say over her schedule and allowed to conduct her press conferences alone. Stefano has stopped overseeing Jennifer's coaching and left her on-court activities to Pavel Slozil, the Czechoslovakian-born former coach of Steffi Graf; Slozil has been working with Jennifer since the start of the year. "Right now she needs me as a father, not as a coach," says Stefano. "This way we can keep them separate."
Stefano's decision to move aside has surprised some in the tennis world who figure him for a more controlling type. He is indeed an ambitious, even driven man who says, "The world would have no champions without parents." But he is a far cry from the abusive tennis fathers who dole out their affection according to wins and losses, and he is extremely sensitive to the charge that he is using his daughter to chase a fortune. His adoration of Jennifer is obvious, and he rues his reputation as a tennis father.
"We are an open book," says Stefano. "Ask anyone how I am with her. If you do good as a parent, it's normal, no one writes anything about that. If you do one thing wrong—it's wrong."
Stefano and Denise say that they were astonished by Jennifer's explosion as both a player and a public figure in 1990, and that they have felt harried ever since. "We never had time to adjust," says Stefano. Indeed, they are in largely uncharted waters. No other player so young has ever been so rich and so talented, according to Kain, who oversaw the management of both Evert and Bjorn Borg.
"Jenny has been our teacher, too," Stefano says. "She makes mistakes, we make mistakes, and the family learns from the mistakes. And we try not to make a big deal of it."
Jennifer has contracts with the Diadora shoe and clothing company, with Prince rackets and with Oil of Olay, among others, and she commands six figures for an evening's exhibition match. That kind of financial machinery manufactures daily pressure, not to mention questions like, Do her friends like her for herself or for her tennis? Do her parents give her attention because they love her or because she is the family breadwinner? How much can she challenge her parents and teachers and coaches? "You could see a lot of it coming," says Palmer's wife, Jo, the instruction supervisor at the Palmer Academy.
Emboldened by her success, Capriati clearly aches for independence. "Everyone has arguments with their parents," Denise says. "Tell me you don't, and that's bull." After Christmas, Denise and Stefano allowed Jennifer to fly to Mexico by herself to visit a girlfriend and stay with her family. The idea was to give her more rope. Denise encouraged the fashion experiments by painting her own fingernails black, and she accompanied Jennifer to a Guns N' Roses concert.
Capriati attends school for one hour in the morning and for four more hours in the afternoon. Her tennis training takes up another three hours. But according to Stefano, sometimes Jennifer would just rather go to an amusement park. What 16-ycar-old wouldn't?
On a couple of occasions during the Lipton, the Capriatis sat with Evert's parents, Colette and Jimmy. The Everts are regarded as two tennis parents who got it right in many ways, but according to Chris, becoming No. 1 still cost her much of her girlhood. Jennifer worries about making such a sacrifice.
"You have to give her credit for asking these questions and confronting these issues at a young age," says Chris. "There's a silver lining here."
One of Jennifer's chief difficulties has been the pressure she has felt to start winning tournaments on a regular basis—particularly after her heartbreaking loss to the 17-ycar-old Seles in the U.S. Open semis last September. Capriati twice served for the match before losing 7-6 in the third set. The person who is perhaps most intent on not hurrying Capriati is Slozil. He saw one pupil, Graf, become too consumed by tennis. Slozil dreads the thought of having to watch that happen to another young player. He says Capriati's ranking could fall from No. 6 to No. 9 and he wouldn't become unduly worried.
"Jennifer is not a burnout, but she has to find the right motivation again," says Slozil. "Steffi really only thought about tennis for a long time; she had no friends, and maybe now she pays for it. Tennis is Jennifer's fun and her hobby and her business. She needs time for herself. And I have to wait like everybody else."
Capriati sums up her plight with a penetrating look and a teenage shrug. "I wish it could be simpler," she says. "But then it would be boring."