In general, tennis stars are a miserable, pampered lot, and you can have
’em all, every one. It’s hard to work up sympathy for people whose idea of a
“problem” is no ice in the limo.

So let’s be frank. Jennifer Capriati is not the first person, tennis or otherwise, to be found with drugs in a motel room. Nor is she the first to check into a rehab clinic. What happened this week — police booking her on marijuana possession, stories emerging that she may have been doing heroin and crack cocaine, her friends arrested on charges involving those drugs, Capriati checking into a Miami treatment center (Page 3D) — while it may have prompted a storm of conversation, doesn’t necessarily make her sympathetic. She could be just another pampered teen who figures she’s invincible, and some people will bail her out. Don’t they always?

I might accept this explanation and speak no more about this story, except that using the words “Jennifer Capriati” and “just another” in the same sentence is inappropriate — unless it reads “Jennifer Capriati is just another victim of an uncontrollable father, blood-sucking agents, corporate smiley faces and a sport gone mad.”

So maybe she warrants a closer look. In the end, it’s all a lie

From her entry into the pro tennis world at the ridiculous age of 13, to her first pro victory at 14, to her semifinal appearance at Wimbledon at 15, to her Olympic gold medal at 16, Jennifer Capriati has been the fascination of tennis watchers, a human petri dish slid under the microscope every few months, usually with this conclusion: “She’s a regular kid!”

This was based on her giggling now and then, making a reference to rock music, or giving a quote in France describing Napoleon as “that little dead dude.” I can’t tell you how many articles, from People magazine (“she enjoys taking in a trip to the movies”) to the Saturday Evening Post (“she seems totally unfazed by all the money”) bought into this “regular kid” angle. I can’t tell you how many TV shows and radio programs broadcast it as gospel — an average kid! — when common sense screams there is no such thing.

You are not an average kid when your father starts pushing you through sit-ups while you are still drinking from a bottle. You are not an average kid when hundreds of reporters watch you play tennis before your 14th birthday. You are not an average kid when you fax in your homework from Paris, or leave class to fly to Europe to endorse moisturizers.

You are not an average kid when you buy your parents their luxury home, move out to an apartment, quit your sport to concentrate on high school, then quit high school.

Anyone who ever bought this normalcy bit about Capriati was sucking on a line that tennis, its sponsors, its agents and mostly, the girl’s parents, desperately wanted the world to believe.

Because they knew it was a lie.

I remember doing a big story on female tennis players once. I visited and interviewed several dozen ex-teen sensations. From the famous — Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger — to the unknown, their tales were the same: pressure, worries, burnout, depression, early retirement. One told me how she vomited on her racket during her last match.

It’s a pattern so familiar, an anthropologist would categorize it. Steal a girl from her childhood, tell the world “she loves the sport,” push her into the pro life, milk as much money and fame as you can, then watch it unravel.

Even the successful female players today seem worse for it. Steffi Graf, who turned pro at 13, grows more melancholy each year. Monica Seles, a pro at 15, was in the middle of a rebellion before she was stabbed. And Gabriela Sabatini, a pro at 14? The next time she smiles will be the first.

Did anyone think Capriati would be different? Parents’ job being handled by lawyer

Her hero was Chris Evert. They both came from Florida, and Chris’ father, Jimmy, was one of Jennifer’s first coaches. But the elder Evert kept his daughter from turning pro until her 18th birthday. She had a childhood. She had high school. She played until she was 35. It is almost too ironic that Capriati was reportedly at that motel in Coral Gables because there were parties scheduled in the area.

Prom parties.

Now understand: I do not excuse Capriati’s actions because she had a weird upbringing. Plenty of kids have weird upbringings — without $6 million in endorsement contracts — and don’t wind up in motel rooms with drug users.

But compassion should always find its way to a child, and to be fair, Capriati, tossed to the wolves by her parents, agents and tennis mavens, probably didn’t know what was happening to her until it was too late. All you needed was to read her arrest story — a quote from her lawyer, a quote from her agent, a quote from her agent’s publicist — to see the cocoon that has both shielded and suffocated her.

Tennis should have learned its lesson long ago: Make them pros as children, they’ll be gone by adulthood. As for Capriati’s parents, the big lie they told the world and maybe themselves has come home to roost.

Her lawyer, in explaining Capriati’s arrest, said this: “She has a problem with good judgment.”

At least she picked up something from her elders.

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