Suffer the tennis children
T hey came hurtling across the Atlantic from places like Palos Verdes, California, Stuart, Florida and Grosse Pointe, Michigan. They had American optimism, clear American skin and brilliant white-toothed American smiles. They hit double-handed on backhand and forehand. They were exciting, they were talented and they were young. Boy, were they young.
Tracey Austin was just 15 when she charmed everyone by reaching the Wimbledon 1978 fourth round while playing in a pinafore made by her mother. Two years later, she was US Open champion. Andrea Jaeger made the Wimbledon quarter-finals aged 15 and the final aged 18. Carling Bassett was a US Open semi-finalist in 1984 at the age of 16. In the days they sweated it out on the courts of a runaway American dream.
And they were getting younger all the time. In 1981, Kathy Rinaldi made the quarter-finals of the French Open. She was 14. In 1983, Stephanie Rehe became the youngest ever player to make the world rankings, two months after her 13th birthday. It seemed that, at the rate things were going, there would be a good chance of the 2000 Wimbledon final being contested by two foetuses.
After all, Stefano Capriati was apparently able to detect his daughter's potential while she was still in the womb. "Stefano knew she would be a tennis player just by the way I carried her," said his wife Denise, who gave birth to baby Jennifer on March 19, 1976.
While Jennifer was still in the cradle, her father propped her up with a pillow so she could do sit-ups. By the age of four, she could complete a hundred-shot rally and the family had moved from New York to Florida so she could be coached by Jimmy Evert, father of Chris, whose failure to win a Grand Slam title till the grand old age of 19 made her look a bit of a late developer in this brave new world.
Jennifer Capriati was perhaps the most precocious of all the American wunderkinder. A full-time professional by the age of 13, she was a French Open semi-finalist at 14, a Wimbledon and US Open finalist at the age of 15 and Olympic champion at the age of 16.
Yet the fact that there are no similarly precocious youngsters around these days -- the only player aged 18 or under in the world top 100 is Melanie Oudin of the US, number 35 and only two months away from her 19th birthday -- owes a lot to what Jennifer did next.
Aged 17 and struggling with injuries, she began to lose form and was involved in a shoplifting incident. This was followed by an arrest for marijuana possession in May 1994 and a stint in drug rehab. A break from competitive tennis followed and Capriati was unable to win a single round of a Grand Slam event from 1993 to 1998.
Yet it seemed there would be a happy ending to this story, even after she landed herself in further trouble following an incident in a Miami nightclub where she attempted to punch her boyfriend and hit a waitress instead. In 2001, she won her first Grand Slam title, the Australian Open, by beating Martina Hingis in straight sets and followed up by winning the French Open. By October of that year, she was world number one. The following year there was another Australian Open title. Stefano's masterplan had worked. It had all turned out okay in the end, hadn't it?
There was something heartening about Jennifer Capriati's comeback. She seemed somehow more human than some of her robotic contemporaries and her performances on court were infused with a winning mixture of passion and vulnerability. It almost seemed too good to be true that the girl who had confessed, at 18, "I felt no-one liked me as a person. I felt like my parents and everyone else thought tennis was the way to make it in life, they thought it was good, but I thought no-one knew or wanted to know the person who was behind my tennis life," had found a route to happiness.
Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. Three years ago, tortured by a shoulder injury which meant she couldn't even play a casual game of tennis, Capriati told an American newspaper she'd been thinking of suicide. "It's like 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'."
Last week she was rushed to hospital in Florida with what her family insist was an accidental overdose of prescription medication. There seems little doubt that Jennifer Capriati is in a dark place.
It's hardly surprising. At the age of 16, she wept in front of reporters after losing the quarter-final of the Australian Open and lamented, "it's become too serious." There was a price to pay for the child prodigies who once enraptured audiences. Carling Bassett, an unforgettably plucky player who hurled herself at every shot, struggled with bulimia. So did Monica Seles and Zina Garrison, another former world-ranked teenager. By the age of 20 Tracey Austin was so tortured by back problems that she couldn't sit in a straight-backed chair. Stephanie Rehe needed back surgery while she was still in her teens and was gone from the game by the age of 23. Susan Mascarin, who played Wimbledon at the age of 16 in 1981, has spoken of how she thought about suicide in a hotel room after losing an important game the same year.
There are other irregularities which seem like the results of being prevented from having a normal childhood. Capriati had been in a long-term relationship with a male porn star who goes by the name of Dale Da Bone, winner, so I'm told, in the best group sex scene in a film at the 2004 Adult Video News awards. Da Bone is not his real name, his real name is Dale Rutter. Seriously. Whatever about the merits of Mr Rutter's screen work, it is fair to say that his working environment is hardly one conducive to a healthy attitude towards the female sex. Lisa Bonder, a pro at the age of 15 who once made the world top ten, went on to marry a billionaire 48 years older than her. The marriage lasted 28 days. Andrea Jaeger went to the other extreme, and became a nun.
At this remove, it seems almost unbelievable that there were once so many, let's face it, children enduring the stresses of life at the top of one of the most competitive professional sports. When England's Laura Robson received an entry to Wimbledon last year, she was the first 15-year-old to play in the tournament since Martina Hingis in 1995.
The tennis moppets were our equivalents of the Romanian gymnasts and East German athletes whose sporting lives were regimented by the dictatorial regimes of those countries. They had no more choice than their Eastern Bloc counterparts, because what choice does a child have when its parent starts it doing sit-ups in the crib? Next time you see an adult roaring and shouting at an under 12 match and feel disposed to condemn them, remember that there are pushy parents, and then there are pushy parents.
Fingers crossed Jennifer Capriati makes another great comeback. Not on the courts but in her life.
Poor kid. Poor kids.