From The Vault: Jennifer Capriati

Jennifer Capriati. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about this woman? She stands as one of the greatest, most talented and divisive players in a generation bursting at the seams with greatness, talent and controversy. In her wildly scattered 14 years on tour, the American amassed a total of three Grand Slam titles, an Olympic Gold Singles medal, 17 weeks at number one and countless classic victories (and losses) against the greatest players over two separate generations.

It’s tough, however, to pinpoint her single her most memorable moment. Was it her supernova rise up the rankings while barely a teenager? She made her tour debut on the WTA tour in 1990 aged 13 and immediately stormed to the final of two of the first three events before reaching the semis of her first Grand Slam in Paris. A year later she broke into the top ten, and in the following year dispatched of Sanchez-Vicario and Graf – the top two players in the world – to take the Olympic Gold in Barcelona aged 16. Not too shabby.

Of course, there’s also that small issue of the “c” word. We’ve all heard about her famed comeback – the burnout, the shoplifting arrest, the marijuana possession, that mug shot, her resulting lengthy break and the desperate struggle (and initial failure) to regain anything resembling previous form, the reporters who smugly wrote her off. She could have easily allowed herself to swept away into the tsunami-sized wave of burnt out young prodigies. But she didn’t. She persevered, slowly building her way back to the top. After completely falling out of the rankings in 1994 and failing in her initial comeback a year later, she picked up her first Grand Slam win in 5 years at the 1998 Wimbledon. A lowly title and #23 finish followed a year later. A slam semifinal and top 15 finish in 2000. And finally, the fairy tale was completed in 2001 as she eased past second-ranked Davenport and top-ranked Hingis in succession to capture her first slam title in Australia. But you already new that all.

Two of Capriati’s single most memorable moments were her famed epic slam finals. The first at Roland Garros in 2001 when a young Aussie Kim burst into relevance by reaching her first slam final. Despite the young Belgian matching both Capriati’s supreme athleticism and power with ease, there was no panicking to be seen from the reigning Australian Open champion as she was swiftly delivered a shock first set breadstick. Instead, she embraced the challenge, putting her head down and finding her range to level up the match. By the third, both women were in full-slugfest mode with their lightning-fast movement, intricate footwork and spectacular shotmaking simultaneously cancelling each other out and enhancing the other. The third set wore on well into overtime, with Capriati twice serving for the title while a resilient Clijsters pegged the American back each time. But eventually the champion‘s extra grit and mental strength proved the difference between the two and she edged out the title..

Capriati’s third and final slam title would come in Australia the very next year in conditions so difficult that the heat practically radiated through the television set and left Capriati even pissier and more vexated than her, well, usual pissy and vexated self. Hingis raced up a set and break, looking ripe for her sixth slam title. In response, Capriati dug deeper than ever before, first hunting back the break before fighting off multiple match points. Her effort was painfully visible as she collapsed into the linesman chairs between most points, but she refused to succumb, saving yet another match point and spectacularly surviving the second set tiebreak. Before long, the script was flipped on its head as Hingis ditched her trademark overly self-confident and carefree demeanour and retreated back into the shade, panting, exhausted and defeated. The 2002 Australian Open may have proved to be Capriati’s last great victory, but she saved the best til last.

None of this answers the original question, however. Probably because she herself is far more interesting than the titles she collected. She’ll always be remembered as the complex figure she cut – the tennis player whose game was not defined simply by defence or offence, the person who paradoxically stood as the ultimate role model in the art of never giving up, yet was notorious for her vulgar attitude and behaviour. In other words, Jen-Cap will be remembered as Jen-Cap.