Tennis Prodigy – Jennifer Capriati

In 1990, 13 year old tennis sensation Jennifer Capriati made her professional debut at the Virginia Slims of Florida. There was so much hype about the appearance that it was dubbed the “Virginia Slims of Capriati.”

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Capriati had been attracting attention on the American amateur circuit because of her innate talent and bubbly personality and had already earned $6 million in endorsements before she turned pro.

Rules prohibited anyone under 14 years of age from competing in a pro event but the Women’s Tennis Association changed the rules prior to the Viriginia Slims tournament allowing a player to enter pro on the month she turned 14. The WTA was desperate to find a new American star to replace tennis legend Chris Evert who retired in 1989.

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Chris Evert

Expectations were super high for Capriati and she didn’t disappoint. By the end of 1990 she had reached the semis at the French Open and earned her first tour singles title. She became the youngest player to make the top ten.

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In 1991, she made it to the semis at Wimbledon and the US Open. And in 1992 she captured the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics.

Then things started going off the rails for Capriati who at the age of 17 started to burn out. Following a first round loss at the 1993 US Open, Capriati went two years without playing a major.

Desperate for normality, she started to dress in black and seek friends outside of tennis. After taking a break from the sport in 1993 she was caught in possession of marijuana and arrested for shoplifting a ring – she has always insisted it was an act of mere forgetfulness.

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For the rest of the nineties she drifted in and out of tennis before mounting a brilliant comeback at the end of the decade, winning three Grand Slam Singles titles.

And in October 2001, she triumphantly ascended to the world number one position. But her new success was cut short by injuries and she was forced to retire in 2004.

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In recent years she has struggled with mental health and addiction issues and lives away from the spotlight in Florida.

Capriati’s biggest legacy may be changes that the WTA implemented after her early rise and fall from the spotlight. They created new rules that limit the number of WTA events a teenager can play to prevent burnout. For example, a 14-year-old can play in eight professional events while a 15-year-old can play in 10. These rules have been a hot topic in recent years during Coco Gauff’s ascent as the newest young tennis phenom.

Coco Gauff
Coco Gauff

For more stories from the 1990s make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at Curiouscast.ca

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