Former child prodigy Jennifer Capriati is finding peace in her life in her home in Jupiter, Fla.
Capriati battles at the 2004 U.S. Open.
Capriati during the 2004 Italian Open.
Capriati celebrates after beating Serena Williams during the 2004 U.S. Open.
JUPITER, Fla. – Jennifer Capriati can’t remember where she was when she first had thoughts of killing herself. Between the doctor visits and the pain and the idleness, the timeline isn’t easy to keep straight.
She just remembers being boxed in by bleakness, battered by doubts about her purpose and her worth, pounding herself harder than she ever hit any tennis ball. Here she was, a Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medalist and former No. 1 player in the world, reduced to this, a lost soul with a bad shoulder, a woman in a vice grip of depression.
In those dark moments, neither her successes nor her $10 million in career earnings could offer a shred of comfort. She’d look at the baseline of her life and see nothing but her own faults.
“Sometimes you get to a point where you can’t stop what you are thinking,” Capriati says. “It’s like you’re being taken over by a demon. You just feel there’s no way out of this space you’re in. It feels like the end of the world. When you are just so exhausted and tired of feeling that way, you (think), ‘I want to be off this planet right now, because I just feel disgusting inside. I can’t even stand my own skin, and I just want to get out.’”
Capriati pauses a moment. “The more you stuff it and don’t talk about it, the more it festers and eats you up inside,” she says. “It helps to talk about it with other people who go through it. You can’t wear an iron shield all the time.”
For more than two and a half years, Capriati, 31, has found herself in professional purgatory, afflicted with a debilitating shoulder injury that prevents her from even going out for a backyard hit. She had two surgeries she thought would provide relief, thought she’d rehab for a few months and be back on the tour. It hasn’t happened that way. Capriati has played tennis six times since her last professional match, a 6-0, 6-1 loss to Vera Zvonareva of Russia in November 2004. She will soon have a third operation, and another on her wrist, and also try to find a solution for a degenerative condition in her back. The ordeal has left her feeling abandoned by her former agency, IMG, and staring squarely at her athletic mortality, even as another hardcourt season moves on without her.
Can you imagine how difficult it can be when your body has always delivered strength and power as needed, and suddenly you feel as brittle as a wafer?
“I’ve only known one speed – 100 mph – and now I feel stuck in this place where I can’t move,” she says.
It has been 17 years since Jennifer Capriati emerged as a pony-tailed prodigy, the most heralded underage tennis player of all time, a sweet-faced, ball-bashing girl out of the Saddlebrook Resort who made millions in endorsements before she hit a pro ball, made the finals of her first tournament and even made the cover of Sports Illustrated. “And She’s Only 13!” the headline read. Now the digits are reversed, and hard questions abound. Capriati isn’t the first athlete to be daunted by the impending end of a career, but it sometimes feels that way.
She is sitting on a sofa in a house she is renting while she waits to move into a home she’s building in Tampa. She is wearing a pink tank top and blue shorts and looks strikingly fit, inactivity notwithstanding. She’s a few feet from a flat-screen TV, where she watched Venus Williams win Wimbledon last weekend. It was hard. Watching the Grand Slams is always hard.
“When I stopped playing, that’s when all this came crumbling down,” Capriati says. “If I don’t have (tennis), who am I? What am I? I was just alive because of this. I’ve had to ask, ‘Well, who is Jennifer? What if this is gone now?’ I can’t live off of this the rest of my life.”
Says her brother, Steven Capriati, a lawyer in Tallahassee, Fla., “For any athlete, once you stop doing what you’ve loved for 20 or 25 years and all of a sudden it’s taken away, it can be a tough progression into the next life.”
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If Jennifer Capriati does not make it back to the tour, her legacy will go well beyond her 430 tour victories, her three Slam titles, her Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, or her epic 1991 Open semifinal with Monica Seles, one of the most riveting tennis dramas in recent memory. It will also entail her becoming a poster girl for the perils of premature stardom, of a childhood cut short by the pursuit of money. It was 1994 when the women’s tour passed the so-called “Capriati Rule,” barring players from turning pro before their 14th birthday and setting limits on how often teenagers could play. The measure was enacted not long after Capriati took almost a two-year leave from the sport, a well-chronicled hiatus that began after a first-round loss to Leila Meskhi of Georgia at the 1993 U.S. Open. Rebelling from the rigors of the tour, the confines of life with her parents, Stefano and Denise Capriati and the impossibly high expectations she and others had for herself, an 18-year-old Capriati took flight. She moved out on her own, made new friends, made a point not to tell people who she was. Eight months after she walked out of Flushing Meadows, she wound up getting arrested for marijuana possession in a seedy Coral Gables, Fla., motel, police taking a bedraggled-looking mug shot that turned up in newspapers all over the world.
Capriati was searching for herself then, too.
“When someone that young has such an incredible level of talent and promise, and the whole world identifies them with it, it can short-circuit the natural process of identity formation,” says Dr. Fred Wertz, chairman of Fordham’s psychology department. The result is that you see yourself in one way, doing one thing. Other options don’t even compute.
Everything she has been through has taught Capriati much about life. If she were to have a daughter who showed athletic promise, she knows for sure would not force-feed stardom. She’d want her to have fun with it, enjoy the process, not get consumed with expectations and seriousness the way Capriati did.
“She’s the most hyped player of all time,” Pam Shriver, the former tour player, once said of Capriati. “Nobody can operate with those kinds of expectations without repercussions.”
As the conversation turns to her greatest moments – the Olympic gold medal 15 years ago, the Grand Slam triumphs – Capriati stops, and her eyes well up. “I’m thinking I’m never going to have those highs again. Nothing is ever going to measure up to that again. But I know it’s not true. I can find another high, whether it’s a family, something I’m passionate about. Now I don’t have anyone telling me what to do. I don’t have to answer to anyone anymore. Now this is my time to shine.”
She admires the energy and dedication of Andrea Jaeger, the former top player who has become a nun, and the commitment Andre Agassi has made to his inner-city school in Las Vegas. She hopes to find her own niche – to become able-bodied again, get after something good and meaningful.
So where does Jennifer Capriati go from here? Some days are better than others. Depression is neither tidy nor predictable. She knows it’s dangerous to isolate, to get into the toxic mindset of believing that nobody can know her pain.
Capriati wants to bring her competitor’s heart to the fore. She is grateful for her family and her financial security, the good things in her life. Two days ago, she saw a chiropractor and kinesiologist who made her feel better. Toward the close of a two-hour discussion, Jennifer Capriati takes a moment to reflect and looks at you and seems resolute and strong, no longer America’s pony-tailed prodigy whacking a yellow-green ball, but a woman in search of respite, and hope.
“I know (suicide) is not the answer,” she says. “I only have one go at this. Even if it’s torturous, you have to stick it out. Maybe this is all a blessing. I’m still young. I still have time to figure it out.
“I have a choice. Am I going to let this defeat me, and make me not even want to be here? Or am I going to do something to not let this break me down, and maybe help other people? That’s the mission I’m on now, to find happiness and positiveness in the future.”
Capriati returned to the game in 1996, and was widely viewed as a 22-year-old has-been. She gradually began to regain her confidence and her punishing groundstrokes and wound up at the pinnacle of the sport, winning the Australian and French Opens in 2001, and the Australian again the next year. She was named female athlete of the year in 2001 by almost everyone.
“Everybody had written her off,” says Jim Fuhse, a special consultant to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and a longtime Capriati confidant. “It was the greatest comeback I’ve seen in the sport.”
Even then, though, Capriati often felt hollow inside, suffering from low self-esteem, wondering whether people really liked her, or whether they were just latching on to her celebrity. In her own mind, Capriati either won, or felt worthless.
“If I was at the height of my game, beating Serena Williams, I was on top of the world, but something was still missing inside,” Capriati says. “The happiness factor wasn’t there. I’m still struggling to find out what that is. I’ve always been self-critical. I struggle with trying to like and love myself on a daily basis.”
She stops, and runs a hand through her dark hair. “This is not just about me hitting a tennis ball. This is about the rest of my life. How am I going to live on this earth and wake up happy with who I am? Do I want to go back to tennis just to fill that void again? Is that an escape almost? Is that just the easy way out?”
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Some 21 million Americans suffer from depression, according to Mental Health America, a Virginia-based advocacy group. Capriati says she has battled it for much of her life. She is in therapy and has tried medication to alleviate it, but resisted help for a long time. She was afraid what people would think, and wanted to gut it out by herself.
Capriati says she has never tried to commit suicide, never gotten to the point where she had a vial of pills in her hand. Still, the thoughts come and go, less so now than before. It’s hard to know what triggers them. Her frustration over her shoulder and back ailments have been immense. Almost the moment she stopped playing, she felt she was an afterthought to IMG, the agency that represented her for almost 20 years. “Basically, it was , ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’” Capriati says. “There are more important prospects out there at the moment.”
It bothered her that nobody from the USTA called to check in. But Capriati doesn’t want to dwell on perceived slights, or feel like a victim. “I can sit here and point fingers, but what’s important is where I go from here.” Nor does she want to blame her father, the orchestrator of her career. While Capriati believes that turning pro so young “backfired,” and that it was too much, too soon, she believes Stefano Capriati has been unfairly lumped with the tour’s more maniacal tennis fathers, when he really only had her best interests at heart.