03.22.13

Jennifer Capriati’s Legacy: Tennis Great or Troubled Star?

Tennis prodigy turned tabloid staple Jennifer Capriati is once again in trouble with the law—charged with stalking an ex. Kevin Fallon on the former phenom’s fall from grace.

What is the lasting image of Jennifer Capriati?

Jennifer Capriati
Jennifer Capriati at the 2012 Legends Ball at the Cipriani in New York on Sept. 7., 2012. (Jeffrey Geller/ZUMAPRESS.com, via Corbis)

It is the photo of the exuberant 15-year-old, decked out in red, white, and blue, cheering on top of the medal stand after winning the gold medal in Barcelona? The triumphant comeback kid, who won her first Grand Slam title in 2001, 11 years after her Grand Slam debut and the lowest seed to ever win the Australian Open? Or was it just eight months ago, when the tearful 36-year-old tennis pro accepted her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, proclaiming, “This is one milestone I thought I’d never achieve”?

More likely, Capriati’s legacy will be all those reasons she thought she’d never make it to that milestone. Every moral and professional victory in her career has reliably been accompanied by tragic personal drama. The latest setback: Capriati was charged with battery and stalking stemming from a Valentine’s Day incident with her ex-boyfriend. From shoplifting to marijuana charges, the image of Tennis’s Sweetheart, turned Tennis’s Cinderella Story, turned Tennis’s Bold Survivor has always been tarnished by controversy.

She was the kind of girl inspirational books are written about, whom Wheaties boxes were invented to feature, whom Sports Illustrated exists to have on its cover. The definition of a prodigy, Capriati went pro at age 13. By 14, she reached the semifinals of the French Open, becoming the youngest person to be ranked in the Top 10. Then the golden moment: the underdog 15-year-old defeats world powerhouse Steffi Graf to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona.

From there, the story could have gone two ways: cue the patriotic music for the inspirational montage about the star-is-born moment and the sunny career that followed, or fade into the ominous piano twinkling for the True Hollywood Story about how quickly things crumbled. For Capriati, it was the latter.

The troubled-teen downward spiral was almost cliché. At age 17 she was arrested for shoplifting. A drug arrest, of course, followed. Charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, Capriati, 18, agreed to enter a drug-counseling program. She played only one match that year, and lost. She became unranked. Four months later, she sat down with The New York Times to confess that the rapid flame-out of her career and just-as-swift explosion of her celebrity led her to contemplate suicide. There were body image issues: “When I looked in my mirror, I actually saw this distorted image: I was so ugly and fat, I just wanted to kill myself, really.”

Gone were the Sports Illustrated covers. This was National Enquirer’s new headline star.

But the True Hollywood Story continues: the second act.

She returned to tennis in 1996, playing doggedly with bursts of greatness but mostly embarrassment. By 1998, she was ranked below 200. Then, things turned. She reached the final four of the 2000 Australian Open, her first Grand Slam semifinal in nine years. The next year, she won the tournament—her first Grand Slam title. She followed it up with a French Open victory. By the end of the year, she was ranked No. 1.

The nation cheered its emboldened Cinderella in a tennis skirt, the girl who conquered her demons to return stronger than ever. Once again she was a media darling, not its punching bag. She won the ESPY for Comeback Player of the Year in 2002. Among the nominees she beat: some guy named Michael Jordan.

The glory, again, was fleeting. The ultimate rehabilitation story reverted to cautionary tale after multiple injuries forced her out of the WTA Tour at the end of 2004. After a frustrating six years off the court that she loved, Capriati suffered a drug overdose in 2010.

After she recovered from the incident, it seemed that Capriati again had put her off-court troubles behind her. A career of ups and downs culminated into the athlete’s ultimate triumph when she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. “It’s been quite a journey,” she said, choking back tears as she remembered being thrust into the spotlight fresh out of the eighth grade, winning a gold medal, and all the troubles that followed. “This is so great for me because it’s putting a lot of closure to my career and I’m able to move forward, give thanks, take thanks, give the honor and take the honor, and just be acknowledged here. It means everything to me.”

The moment was the epitome of triumph—if only Capriati really had been able to move forward. She’s been ordered to appear in court next month to answer allegations that she sent hundreds of texts to her ex-boyfriend and punched him four times outside a Florida gym. Her attorney, calls the allegations “nonsense” and says Capriati will “of course enter a plea of not guilty.”

Capriati herself has not responded to requests for comment, but she appears to have addressed the allegations on her Twitter account. “All of this is absurd,” she tweeted. “I’m outraged by the media, by my ex, the false accusations, not being able to say the truth, Lyme disease, my injuries.”

The allegations may very well be false, but that doesn’t make them any less disappointing. This True Hollywood Story already had its perfect ending: that eloquent, emotional, speech from a survivor this summer at the Hall of Fame.

Now the last words come in the form of a frenzied tweet, and a sad, ominous “to be continued…”