Young, famous and easy prey: Tennis superstar Capriati's fall not unusual

When she was 13 and smiling freely and hitting a tennis ball ferociously, they said it would be different.

They said that Jennifer Capriati would not become a poster child for tennis burnout. She would be cared for, her parents promised. Agents from International Management Group, perhaps the most powerful marketing firm in world sports, vowed both to protect her from the financial sharks and enrich her beyond anyone's dreams.


But here she is at 18, a fallen tennis star staring at the world from a mug shot.

Has anyone learned anything about the perils of mixing childhood and superstardom?


"When children don't get childhood, they don't become normal adults," said Mary Carillo, a CBS-TV tennis commentator and former touring pro.

"Isn't this kind of predictable?" she asked. "I understand a lot of people were surprised and outraged with Capriati. But surprise has no business showing up in this story."

Childhood phenomenons

Ms. Capriati, who entered a drug rehab clinic after being arrested for marijuana possession, is one of a long line of childhood phenomenons who have somehow run aground. Some survive the trauma. Others don't.

In tennis, round up the usual suspects of pony-tailed sweethearts turned old before their time, of Andrea Jaeger hitting moon balls one moment, arguing with her father and coach the next, then dropping out of sight altogether. Or Tracy Austin, a 16-year-old champion with a bad back and a wrecked career who has recently re-emerged happily married and on the comeback trail.

"You should look at what the parents do for their children," said retired tennis star John McEnroe. "It's very unhealthy for their long-term career to put them out there so early when they don't know what $5 is, let alone $1 million. Sponsors and companies, just so they can help themselves, offer these little teen-agers multimillion-dollar contracts . . . and they accept it. But they don't understand the ramifications."

It's not just tennis that has problems with phenoms.

College football's national championship team, the Florida State Seminoles, is wracked by scandal. Eight players were accused of taking illegal gifts and cash. The team's star kicker, a freshman, was fined $500 for illegally taping a sexual encounter. And a reserve linebacker faces a rape charge. All this in the past two weeks.


"No sports story surprises me anymore, but I would say the same thing about drive-by shootings," said Joe Lapchick Jr., who heads Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Boston.

'Society unhinged'

"I think it is a whole society that has become unhinged," he said. "We have problems in America that go so far beyond Jennifer Capriati's particular fate. We have to recognize that she is part of a youth culture that is the major consumer of drugs in the #F country that consumes 60 percent of the world's drugs."

Are the problems Ms. Capriati faces all that much removed from the adolescence of actress Drew Barrymore, a star at 6, an alcoholic as a teen? Is there much that separates Ms. Capriati from classically trained music prodigies whose love of music burns out by their 20s?

"Every town you go to, every major music school you go through, there is a phenom who is great," said Vincent Lenti, director of communication education division at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. "The percentage of those who end up with a career is negligible, and you hope they don't end up personal tragedies. But the difference between tennis and music is this: the money."

When Ms. Capriati broke from the tennis tour after the 1993 U.S. Open, she was already a millionaire many times over.


She said she needed time to heal an ailing shoulder and an opportunity to live a normal life away from tennis.

But for Ms. Capriati, a normal life came down to sharing a $50-a-night motel room in Coral Gables, Fla., with a teen-age runaway, a high school dropout, and an unemployed drifter.

She was arrested Monday for marijuana possession, and by Thursday she was enrolled in an addiction treatment program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. Her attorney also vigorously denied allegations made by the drifter, Tom Wineland, and his attorney, that Ms. Capriati used crack cocaine and was "whacked out on heroin."

But within hours of her arrest, the foundation of her fortune, endorsement deals, was cracked. Prince, a racket manufacturer, and Diadora, an Italian clothing firm, cut their ties with the once-ebullient and charming star.

The years on tour had taken a toll on Ms. Capriati. And the sport she once helped carry as a star was once again forced to reassess its values and rules.

Women's tennis is different. Gymnastics may be a battle of prepubescent tumblers and figure skating a neatly controlled exhibition. But in tennis girls and women compete on equal terms.


At 14, a girl can join the pro tour for a limited schedule. At 16 she can play full time. But the rules are being reassessed by a medical panel convened by the Women's Tennis Council.

The sport's history is filled with young stars who grow into mature athletes. For every player like a Ms. Capriati, who buckles, or a Monica Seles, chased nearly into retirement by a knife-wielding German fan, there are others like Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova who make the transformation from teen phenom to tour veteran.

But Ms. Capriati was venturing into uncharted territory. Never before had so young a player been exposed to so many elements of fame and fortune.

Some would call it exploitation.

"This didn't have to happen," Ms. Carillo said. "This was about greed, about money."

While other children were in school, Ms. Capriati was being led around the world by her father, Stefano, to tennis tournaments and exhibitions. While other children earned allowances, Ms. Capriati received millions in endorsements.


nTC "There is no way that a 13-year-old or a 16- or 17-year-old is mature enough to handle these types of pressures of pro sports," Mr. Lapchick said. "It's fame. It's adulation. Whether you are male or female, you will have people coming after you sexually. All of it of course is an illusion. No one is ready at that tender age to have everything thrown at them. You may have that extraordinary person. But you are introducing elements of danger."

Still, it's tough to ignore the lure of professionalism. The money and stakes are too great.

When Pam Shriver, then a high school junior at McDonogh, reached the U.S. Open final at 16, she turned down a $10,000 offer from a shoe manufacturer to paste on a logo and turned down a $20,000 check to remain an amateur.

"It was a totally different market," she said. "Now, you get $250,000 for just being in the final."

And there is a new generation of athletes, specialists who are created at sports academies, many of whom are on a professional track before they reach middle school.

"Look, I have my roots in Baltimore," Ms. Shriver said. "I didn't go away to train. But a lot of these kids move 1,500 miles to be in a better climate near some academy. The whole family moves. That's harsh. The kid knows the family is doing all of this uprooting, becoming a gypsy for them."


And then there are the matches, careers often turning on points.

In retrospect, the moment that may forever define Ms. Capriati's career occurred in the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals in New York. For more than two hours she and Ms. Seles bashed ball after ball at the National Tennis Center, winding up in a third-set tiebreaker. Ms. Capriati was two points from winning the match. She lost and left the court with mascara running down her cheeks. Someone even asked her if she had "choked." In a runway under the stadium the 15-year-old sobbed uncontrollably. For a few seconds she stood alone. Her parents and agents were not in sight. It was David Dinkins, the New York mayor, who led her away.

"She was never the same," Ms. Shriver said. "I saw an unhappy person after that."

Ms. Capriati would come back to win events. She would even win a 1992 Olympic gold medal. But apparently she craved much more.

'Sport is not the world'

Not every phenom burns out, of course.


Swimmer Anita Nall was 15 when she set a world record in the 200-meter breaststroke. She went to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and under great pressure, won a gold, a silver and a bronze medal.

And then, she came home and went back to Towson Catholic High School.

"You have to keep everything in perspective with what you're doing and know that a sport is not the world," she said. "You have to know that whether you like it or not you are in the eye of the public. You have to be a good person."

Ms. Nall has never met Ms. Capriati, but she feels a kinship with the beleaguered tennis star. They are teen-agers who share prodigious talents in their respective sports.

"What happened to Jennifer Capriati is not just her problem, it happens in all of society," Ms. Nall said. "It's just that her story is in the newspaper."

Friday night, while Ms. Capriati prepared to spend her first weekend in a drug rehab center, Ms. Nall, an athletic prodigy, was enjoying a rite of youthful passage.


She danced at her senior prom.