centre-court princesses who lost all
In the early Nineties, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati were teenage tennis sensations who fell far from grace. Donal Lynch chronicles the miseries they endured when the sport they loved was taken away from them
Published 08/04/2013 | 05:00
'Wouldn't it be awful if this were it, if this were the highpoint?'
F Scott Fitzgerald, This Side Of Paradise
It is a grainy YouTube moment, preserved in time: a dusky late-summer afternoon in New York City, a well-heeled crowd on its feet and below, in the cauldron of Louis Armstrong Stadium, two teenagers playing tennis with the venomous intent of axe murderers. They are Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles, supremely coordinated phenoms who, with every purposeful swat of the ball, are ushering in a new power era in the game. Capriati, all giggle and ponytail, is the heir apparent to 'America's sweetheart', Chris Evert. At 13, she has already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and her beaming smile seems made for the cereal box endorsements that have made her a millionairess.
Today, as every day, she is the crowd favourite. The Iron Curtain has just fallen and the match has pleasing Cold War overtones. Her opponent, Seles, is a spindly eastern European who punctuates every ballstrike with a staccato shriek and deploys her eccentric two-handed strokes seemingly without nerves.
She has felled legends like Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova on her path to the number one ranking. In a nail-biting third-set tiebreaker she prevails – pounding one final topspun angle past Capriati – and the tearful younger player has to be consoled with a hug from New York mayor David Dinkins. Tennis writer Michael Mewshaw would later dub this 1991 US Open semi-final 'The Anvil Chorus' for the ferocious pace at which it was played. It would go down in the annals of the game as much for the skill of these centre-court princesses whose fates seemed inextricably linked as for the deep-sea demons that would eventually pull them beneath the waves.
Fast-forward to the present day and the tennis skirts and 1990s haircuts are gone the way of youthful innocence. The drama, meanwhile, has moved off the court. Capriati, now 36, recently made worldwide headlines as she was charged with assault and battery of an ex-boyfriend – golfer Ivan Brannan – at a gym in Florida on Valentine's Day. Brannan told police that he had tried to escape to the men's changing room when he saw Capriati, but that she had blocked his way and punched him. He and Capriati broke up in 2012 and he alleges that she has stalked and harassed him.
This is the latest in a number of incidents involving Capriati and her ex. She was reported to have driven her Porsche through the security gates of Brannan's Florida home. Records show that, prior to the Valentine's Day incident, Brannan made 10 previous complaints of harassment to police, claiming that she showed up at his workplace unannounced and banged on the windows.
Capriati, meanwhile, denies any wrongdoing and has received unlikely support from Brannan's ex-girlfriend, Christine Corley, who is also the mother of his child. Corley, a former MasterChef USA contestant, tweeted that Brannan was doing the same thing to Capriati that he did to her. "He has gone too far in trying to destroy both our lives," Corley wrote. She said that Brannan also accused her of hitting him and is a "master manipulator". Capriati herself called the allegations "absurd" on Twitter and her publicist described them as an "over-exaggeration".
Only a few months before, life had been going smoothly for the former world number one. Last June, she was inducted into the Tennis Hall Of Fame and tearfully told the crowd at Newport, Rhode Island "I never thought I would see this day ... this is one milestone I thought I'd never achieve."
In the front row sat the woman who had introduced her to the crowd: Monica Seles. Visibly moved by Capriati's words, Seles may have reflected on the twists and turns of her own turbulent career and the long road that she and her former rival had walked to reach the podium at the Hall of Fame.
Both had cut their teeth as child prodigies in Florida. Seles moved there when she was seven from Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, where she had been raised in a Hungarian enclave of the city. Capriati grew up in the Palm Beach area and as a four-year-old could effortlessly sustain a 100-stroke rally. As if to make even more explicit the passing of America's tennis crown, she was once coached by Jimmy Evert, father to Chris. Both Seles and Capriati had careers that were driven by their svengali-like fathers. And both struggled with issues of identity and depression when the sport they loved was taken away from them.
It is 20 years ago this month since streaks of blood mixed with red clay on the centre court of the Rothenbaum Club in Hamburg. The scream from Seles was long and tortured, a grotesque iteration of her on-court grunt. A madman with a horror comb-over was roughly pulled back by his neck. Gripped in his right fist was the 12in serrated boning knife, which moments before he had plunged between her shoulder blades. She had staggered forward toward the centre of the court, clutching her back, before wilting to the ground. Police would later find letters that the man – an unemployed lathe operator from Thuringia in eastern Germany – had written to Steffi Graf, professing his undying love. The German player briefly visited Seles in the hospital after the stabbing, but continued with her matches and later voted not to freeze her bitter rival's number ranking.
Seles's attacker was brought before court but never had to serve time in prison – the judge decided that it was unlikely that he would re-offend.
The tour moved on remorselessly, although the attack caused widespread changes to security arrangements for tennis and other sports. These came too late for Seles, who disappeared from public life, rehabbing her injury at a clinic in Vail, Colorado. She had risen to the top of the rankings by dint of iron discipline and focus. Now separated from the tennis tour, she found herself isolated – even her old friend Donald Trump was no support. Without tennis, her life was empty. Her only boyfriend, she would later admit, had been the Prince ball machine that her father had purchased back in their native Yugoslavia.
She sank deeper and deeper into the throes of an eating disorder.
"Food was my best friend," she later wrote. "I was lonely and I would just eat. Potato chips were my downfall. Just as I had once been a champion tennis player, now I became a champion potato chip eater." She would prowl the aisles of supermarkets, filling her trolley with tubs of ice cream, which she would listlessly spoon into herself. She could not bear to watch the Grand Slam tennis tournaments on the TV. In Seles's absence, Graf would return to number one and dominate the tour. On Seles's 21st birthday, when she might have had the world at her feet, she stayed at home with a bag of cookies, and cried. In late 1994, an eagle-eyed photographer spotted her in California. The headline was cruel: 'Too many servings for tennis star Monica Seles'.
By that time, Capriati's downfall was also well in train. And, as with Seles, the pictures told the story. In the first photo, which was blown up and hung inside the door of her Palm Beach Gardens home, she is standing on a podium having has just won gold at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Wisps of hair are plastered to her head with sweat and she jubilantly waves to the crowd, while a dour silver medallist, Graf, stares firmly at the ground. In the second photo, taken barely two years later, Capriati stares out slack-jawed at the camera. Her nose is pierced with a small stud. Her hair has been cut into a shapeless bob. She looks lost.
This is her mugshot, taken after being arrested with a group of other teenagers in a motel room in Florida in 1994. The charge was marijuana possession, although other friends would later claim she had been taking harder drugs. Capriati would later settle the misdemeanour charge by agreeing to attend drug counselling, but her problems would continue. She took an indefinite hiatus from tennis, suffered from severe depression and at one point contemplated suicide.
Capriati had become the latest victim of that timeless sporting malaise: burnout. A friend gave an interview to Sports Illustrated, in which the tortured dynamic of Capriati's relationship with her sport were laid bare. "She loves tennis; the happiest moments of her life are when she's playing," said Mark Black, a 19-year-old high school drop-out who had a relationship with her. "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."
The hole Capriati and Seles left in the tennis tour was immeasurable. In their absence, the tour lost its title sponsor and fans tuned out as Graf's dominance reduced her opponents to the status of glorified ball kids. Eventually, even the also-rans would get their turn; Conchita Martinez, who had never taken a set from Seles, would go on to win Wimbledon. "The income of some of my opponents went up by literally millions after I was forced to drop off the tour," an understandably bitter Seles would later say.
But deep inside her, there was still a lust for competition. Throughout late 1994, she had undergone intense counselling sessions and by the summer of 1995 had begun tentatively hitting tennis balls with her brother, Zoltan. In July, on the eve of the Wimbledon women's final, Seles did what she had always done so well – upstaged her colleagues. She announced that she would play an exhibition with Martina Navratilova in August in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the springboard for a full return to the main tour.
Seles mark II, when she arrived, was notably heavier than her previous Grand Slam-winning incarnation. She carried a spare tyre around her middle and the excess weight put strain on her knees and ankles – she was frequently hobbled by injuries. She appeared slower on the court, but still strong enough to decimate the field at her first tournament back, the Canadian Open. In New York she cruised through to the finals of the US Open where she met Graf in a match steeped in symbolism. Graf had, after all, been the ultimate beneficiary of the crazed attack by one of her own fans. Here, now, was her former adversary, apparently back from the dead and with her jaw jutting out in a grimace of flinty determination, ready to haunt Graf's game all over again. It was a match watched around the world. In the end it was a scything, 110mph serve that did Seles in. The German player collected her fourth US Open crown. There was to be no fairytale ending for what tennis writer Jon Wertheim called the "tragedienne" of tennis. It all seemed quite unfair.
Over the next few years, Seles would settle into an interminable purgatory of quarter-finals. Her weight fluctuated wildly, but she never again resembled the agile waif who had dominated the sport for two years. In 1998, her father and coach, Karolj, passed away. It was a seismic loss. Adding to Seles's woes was the fact that, in the late 1990s, women's tennis players changed, seemingly overnight, from looking like sensibly clad milkmaids into leggy supermodels. Players like Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis began to appear on the covers of men's magazines while a matronly Seles – still only in her mid-20s – huffed and puffed in their glamorous wake. She no longer had the looks or the game to keep up. In 2002, she played an exhibition in Dublin for which her management company, IMG, was never paid. By the middle of the decade she was stuck in an ankle cast and wrestling with her food addiction. Injuries eventually forced her from the sport.
Capriati, too, struggled with depression and weight gain. Throughout the mid- and late 1990s, she tried a number of comebacks and it was 2001 before she finally made her breakthrough, destroying Martina Hingis in straight sets to capture the Australian Open. She won her maiden French Open the following May and defended in Australia a year later. She was a popular champion, with the press referring to her as 'Cinderella in a tennis skirt', and a crowd favourite against the Williams sisters, who began to dominate the game.
Like Seles, Capriati struggled with injuries – in her case a persistent shoulder problem forced her off the tour – and was distracted by off-court dramas. From 2003 to 2009 she dated porn star Dale Dabone and was distraught at his decision in 2010 to return to the adult movie industry. In June of that year, she took an overdose of pills and was found in a 'dazed' state. She would eventually sell the ocean-view Florida condominium where the overdose had taken place, in the process losing $600,000.
Justin Gimelstob, himself a former pro player and a friend of Capriati, said: "She's in tremendous pain, mentally and physically. She struggled with depression and it's a tough story. Jennifer has been through so much. Nobody can ever tell the collateral damage that being a child prodigy has on you."
Nobody, perhaps, except Seles. In the past few years, the nine-time Grand Slam champion appears to have put her demons behind her. In 2007 she wrote a memoir entitled Getting A Grip, in which she described the process of losing weight as she underwent therapy and came to terms with the loss of her father. In 2008 she had a short-lived stint on Dancing With The Stars, during which she too was styled as a Cinderella who was "finally getting to go to the prom". For the past few years she has been dating Tom Golisano, an American billionaire and philanthropist. This June, she will release a tennis-themed novel.
For Capriati the journey toward some modicum of inner peace continues. In her Hall of Fame acceptance speech she spoke of "a new beginning on and off the court, which will inspire and help everyone". Nine months later, those words appear almost tragic as she instead finds herself once again a media curiosity and the subject of yet another police investigation.
She is due in court on April 17 and her lawyer has indicated that she intends to plead not guilty.
The time when winning and losing a match were her highest priorities must seem very far away. Depression and anger seem to be two foes that Capriati cannot put away. For now, the happy ending is on hold and in its place frenzied tweets, wild speculation and an ominous ellipsis.