She had shed everything that Sunday morning, all the burdens and adulation that the tennis world throws at its best. As she sat at a table at a Denny's restaurant in Miami on May 15, there were no sponsors tugging her to meet some corporate geek, no panting reporters asking one more dumb question, no thousand faces shouting her name. Jennifer Capriati was where she wanted to be. The guy she liked, Mark Black, a 19-year-old high school dropout, sat across from her. A friend of hers, a 16-year-old girl named Lucy, was there too. Capriati's companions were part of an ever-shifting group of Coral Gables grunge-punks, all a worry to their parents, staying out until all hours and getting high. Capriati fit right in.
Then this happened: Black asked Capriati how she could afford to bankroll the motel room they had shared with other teenagers the night before and the party that went on there until dawn. Black and Capriati had known each other two days, and he never had a clue. "I won the lottery," she grinned. Then Lucy blurted, "She's Jennifer Capriati." And Black yelled, "Omigod! You're famous!"
It was the wrong thing to say. Capriati's smile vanished; she slapped Black's arm as if he had uttered an insult. Lucy mumbled, "She hates that."
If only Capriati were what she wants most to be—just another 18-year-old, one more faceless kid slouching toward adulthood—the world would have taken scant notice of what happened at the Gables Inn that weekend. But here she was, a tennis star once dubbed the next Chris Evert, sitting for the moment in a Denny's but otherwise holed up in a motel hard by Miami's U.S. 1, throwing a 36-hour-long party. The party would end with Capriati's arrest the day after the Denny's visit on a misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana and the arrest of two others, 19-year-old Tom Wineland for possession of crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia, and 17-year-old Timineet Branagan for possession of heroin. This was a tennis star with talent that, the experts once said, only time could hold back. Now all that promise had gone to pieces.
May 29, 1994
Lost weekend? The mug shot snapped on the morning of May 16 only hinted at how lost Capriati was: clad in the same shirt she'd worn for days, face slack, silver ring in her right nostril, a wisp of hair crossing her face like a scythe. Case No. 94-9816. A year earlier Capriati was preparing for the French Open. Now she was out of tennis, and her sponsors were backing away. Her arrest for possession of marijuana was bad enough. In addition, she was accused by two of her fellow revelers, Wineland and 18-year-old Nathan Wilson, of having used crack and heroin. Her lawyers declined comment on these allegations, but at week's end Capriati entered a drug rehabilitation facility for the second time this year.
Capriati's career, which has earned her some $20 million since she turned pro in 1990, is a shambles. And the strange thing is, she may just like it that way. Since losing in the first round of last year's U.S. Open, Capriati has made every effort to distance herself from anything that smelled of the pro circuit, even avoiding contact with other players. In March, Capriati agreed to serve as an alternate on the U.S. team that will play in the Federation Cup this summer, but team captain Marty Riessen doubts that she had any intention of playing. "She just got really tired of tennis," Riessen says. "Not just indifferent—she came to despise it."
Some would call Capriati's descent the all but inevitable outcome of an extremely public adolescence. An SI cover subject at 13 after she reached the final of her first tournament as a professional in 1990, a semifinalist at the French Open at 14, Capriati, with her clean-cut athleticism and devastating ground strokes, was anointed America's next tennis sweetheart. But by early 1992 the youthful exuberance she brought to the game had faded. She won the gold medal that year at the Barcelona Olympics, but her tennis fame weighed on her. Two months ago Greg Riehle, director of the Saddlebrook Academy, the Tampa-area private school near her parents' home that Capriati formerly attended, said, "Jennifer doesn't want to be a role model. She's adopted Charles Barkley's philosophy."
And then some. From December, when she received a reprimand after allegedly shoplifting a $15 ring at a Tampa mall, until last month, Capriati moved from apartment to apartment in the Tampa area, gained weight, played little tennis and partied so excessively that one official at Saddlebrook considered asking her to take a drug test. SI has been told that during this period Capriati underwent treatment for substance abuse at The Manors, a $348-a-day facility in Tarpon Springs, near Tampa. Just before her 18th birthday, on March 29, Capriati was back living in her parents' house. The Light n' Lively Doubles Championship, a women's tournament, was played at Saddlebrook the week of March 21, but Capriati wanted nothing to do with the players who came to town. Pam Shriver and Tracy Austin left a message asking Capriati to dinner. They never heard back. At about the same time Steffi Graf called and invited Capriati to hit balls with her in Boca Raton, Fla., where Graf has a home. Capriati declined.
"I knew something had to give," says one of Capriati's former coaches, Tommy Thompson, of his pupil's decision to isolate herself from tennis. Thompson, who has known Capriati for six years, was in charge of her early development and directed her first year on the tour. He describes how many around Capriati "looked at her only as a player. It was her only identity." When Capriati's career stalled, Thompson was disgusted to see her network of support dissolve. "Everybody sure wanted to take credit when things were going well," he says. "When she had problems, people scattered. And I say we: coaches, parents, management groups. When I met her she was the easiest, happiest kid I've ever known. She was carefree. After being on the tour for three years I could see a change."
Thompson wasn't the only one. The same week that Shriver and Austin called, Capriati's mother, Denise, hosted a 23rd-birthday party for Rennae Stubbs, a doubles player and family friend. Capriati wouldn't leave her room. Stubbs says that players kept going to Capriati's room to visit her, but eventually Capriati left the house while the party was still going on. No one was prepared for her appearance: She was overweight and sullen, with a ring through her nose. "It was kind of a shock," Stubbs says. "She had gone from princess to this grunge kid."
What could be more incompatible with the athletic ideal than the slacker nihilism of grunge? Something in the moping lyrics of Nirvana, in the brutal rap of Ice Cube, struck a chord with Capriati, and her old tennis acquaintances just didn't get it. "They don't know who Jen is," says one of Capriati's recent roommates, Kevin Spencer, a tennis instructor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "They don't hang out with her. They don't listen to Ice Cube."
Still, in the first week of April, Capriati began taking tentative steps toward resuming her career. After again moving out of her parents' home in Saddlebrook, she took up residence in an apartment across the state in Boca Raton with her oldest friend, Missy Nye, who was attending Florida Atlantic. When the two found the apartment to be too small, Capriati moved to another place with three male friends, including Spencer and Nye's then boyfriend. She scheduled a meeting with her agent, Barbara Perry, to discuss playing some events. Perry says Capriati sounded interested in the game for the first time in months. Capriati called Evert for a chat. And she began hitting with Spencer four or five times a week at a public park in Boca Raton. "Practices were getting longer and more intense," Spencer says. "The way she was drilling the ball, I went through 24 sets of strings. She was getting hungry and wanted to come back."
Nye says many in Capriati's circle worked to focus her on tennis again. "One friend was hitting with her," Nye says, referring to Spencer. "One friend was lifting with her. I was running with her. We wanted to provide a good atmosphere for her." But Capriati was being pulled in another direction. Nye says differences arose between them: "We weren't on the best of terms. In a way there was something not really right with her relationships with people. She wasn't the same person."
On Friday, May 13, Capriati showed up at a party at Lucy's parents' house in South Miami. According to Black and Wilson, friends of Lucy's who were at the party, Capriati knew both Lucy and Branagan from The Manors. Lucy introduced Black to Capriati that night, but he never made the connection between "Jen" and the tennis star. Wilson says that he had known Capriati from recent parties and that she was friendly with many in the crowd from previous visits to the Miami area. "She came down two or three times before this," he says. "She came down three weeks ago, and we stayed in a hotel on the beach—me, Jennifer and Lucy. She has a bank card, and she'd lend it to me sometimes and ask me to get stuff."
Last Saturday, Black's birthday, he went back to visit Lucy and Capriati at Lucy's parents' house, and the three resumed partying. But, Black says, Lucy's parents came home and promptly grounded their daughter. Capriati and Black moved on.
"Jennifer said, 'It's your birthday, and we can party your birthday in a hotel,' " Black says. "I'm not going to say no. Would you say no?" They checked into room 109 at the Gables Inn at 1:23 a.m. Sunday. The room was $50 a night; Capriati registered with her Visa card. The motel lies just 1¼ miles from a five-block stretch of Grand Avenue that is the heart of Miami's Coconut Grove drug market. Black says that he and Capriati talked till dawn. At about 11 that morning Lucy met them at Denny's and revealed Capriati's identity to him. At that point, Black says, she told him why she had tired of the game.
"She explained it to me: She loves tennis; the happiest moments of her life are when she's playing," Black says. "But as soon as it got to be 'Number 1, Number 1, Number 1,' it was too stressful. They were running her life. Her dad. Her coaches. She didn't make money just for herself. A lot of people were depending on her."
A lot of people depended on her that Sunday night, too. After word got out that there was a party at the Gables Inn, as many as 20 people shuffled in and out of room 109. Black, Branagan and Wilson were all there. So was Wineland, a friend of Wilson's who had been in town for a couple of weeks. Wineland, who had been convicted of a drug charge in Connecticut and was on probation, had so alienated Wilson's mother, Susan, that she had kicked him out of her house a few days before—and Wilson had left with him.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened at the Gables Inn that Sunday night. Wilson says he saw Capriati use crack and heroin. "I did see her smoking crack, and I did see her snort heroin," says Wilson, who told SI that he has been treated for drug addiction. "She did it two times in the hotel. I think she was just experimenting with it. But crack? It seems every time I saw her, she just wanted it. It was crazy. We must've spent at least $1,000 the whole weekend. Like every hour, she'd send me back for $200. Coke goes quick, you know?"
Wineland's account is much the same as Wilson's—although to many, Wineland squandered his credibility by appearing shirtless in court on May 17 and peddling his story to American Journal, a tabloid TV show. The Wineland account of Capriati's drug use has also varied: Last Wednesday his lawyer told the Associated Press that Capriati was "whacked out on heroin." But two days earlier Wineland had told SI by telephone from the Metro-Dade jail that he used crack with Capriati but not heroin. Wineland added, however, that Capriati paid for heroin and crack that were purchased that morning.
Black's version of events differs. He says that Capriati was smoking pot, drinking beer and popping antianxiety pills known as Roches—a reference to the pharmaceutical company that makes them. "Say it takes you eight beers to get drunk," he says. "With Roches it takes three beers." But Black says emphatically, "Jennifer did not smoke crack, and she did not smoke heroin. I was pretty much with her the entire time. What I saw was an 18-year-old girl living a normal life, getting drunk with a lot of people, celebrating a birthday party. That's all."
Black says Wilson and Wineland are lying about the extent of Capriati's drug use to pump up the price of their made-for-the-tabloids stories. Wilson says Black is protecting Capriati because he has a crush on her. Wineland says of Capriati, "I think drugs are her main priority."
At some point in the evening, Black says, Capriati gave Wineland the keys to her Miata and her bank card so he could buy beer and cigarettes. When Wineland returned, Black says, "you could tell he'd smoked crack. His lips were all black. He said, 'I need more money,' and he went right al Jennifer, saying, 'I'll let you try it.' He was tempting her. But she turned it down because of me."
Eventually the party broke up, and Black and Capriati were alone in the room. At around 10 a.m., Branagan, Wilson and Wineland returned to the motel, woke Capriati and Black and asked to borrow Capriati's car again. Wineland and Wilson say she gave them the keys and sent them out for drugs—one of many drug runs, Wilson says, that Capriati financed with her bank card that weekend. Meanwhile, Branagan's mother, Carmen, had called the Coral Gables police to report that her daughter had sneaked out of the house and was at the Gables Inn.
When police arrived at room 109, Black and Capriati were still there. The police searched Capriati's belongings and found a plastic bag of marijuana in her backpack. Black says, "She started crying. She said, 'I don't want this attention. Let me call my lawyer.' "
When Branagan, Wilson and Wineland returned in Capriati's car, the police were waiting. According to the police, Wineland got out of the car, holding a crack pipe, which he tried to shove into his pants. Later, at the police station, according to officers, Branagan was found to be hiding heroin in her pants.
Capriati's name, once trumpeted by Diadora, Oil of Olay and other sponsors, is now worth dirt. Prince rackets, which gave Jennifer Capriati certificates to high school students with good grades in something called the Honor Roll program, ended its relationship with her after her arrest. On May 18 Capriati entered drug rehab at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach and, for the moment at least, had accomplished one dubious aim. Referring to Capriati's conduct in room 109, Wilson says, "She was trying to be like everybody else." But she tried too hard.
Now Jennifer Capriati is more famous than ever.
"Everybody sure wanted to take credit when things were going well. When she had problems, people scattered."
"Jennifer doesn't want to be a role model. She's adopted Charles Barkley's philosophy."