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Throwback Thursday: 1990, Jennifer Capriati turns pro at 13
From Capriati's early success, and eventual burnout, came the so-called Capriati Rule—which is currently impacting another American prodigy.
Published Mar 05, 2020
Each Thursday, Joel Drucker will look back at a moment in tennis that warrants remembrance. Some will be significant, others humorous, and many in between. It's Throwback Thursday, tennis-style.
The tournament began on March 5, 1990. Though its official name was the Virginia Slims of Florida, it was dubbed the “Virginia Slims of Capriati”—this tournament marked the professional debut of a highly touted 13-year-old, Jennifer Capriati.
WTA rules prohibited a player from competing in a pro event until she turned 14. But prior to the Slims, the rules were amended to permit a player to enter a pro tournament the month she turned 14. Capriati’s 14th birthday fell on March 29.
The previous year, Capriati had set the tennis world on fire with impressive runs to the junior titles of Roland Garros and the US Open. Coached by such well-regarded instructors as Jimmy Evert and Rick Macci, Capriati was considered the natural heir apparent to Chris Evert, who’d retired at the end of 1989.
Major stories had also been written about Capriati in outlets throughout the country. The media crush continued in Florida, Capriati’s every public step and word tracked closely by dozens.
Capriati played fearlessly. She fought hard to win her first pro match, taking down Mary Lou Daniels, 7-6, 6-1. There followed four more victories, including two over Top 20 players Nathalie Tauziat and Helena Sukova. Amazingly, Capriati was in the finals.
Though she would be beaten by world No. 3 Gabriela Sabatini, 6-4, 7-5, it was clear that Capriati had plenty of game to compete with the best.
“This wasn’t a debut,” said longstanding tour eminence, clothing designer Ted Tinling. “It was a premiere!”
Expectations had been high, and Capriati had more than exceeded them. By the end of 1990, Capriati had reached the semis at Roland Garros and earned her first tour singles title. In 1991, she’d make it to the semis at Wimbledon and the US Open. And in 1992 she’d capture the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics.
But then the plot started to unravel. Still just 17 years old, Capriati started to burn out. Following a first round loss at the 1993 US Open, Capriati went two years without playing a major, and would not win another Slam singles match until 1998. To her credit, Capriati would return to the game by end of the 1990s and win three Grand Slam singles titles.
During Capriati’s mid-'90s exile, the WTA explored its age-eligibility requirements and created new rules that limited the number of WTA events a teenager can play. Though such earlier burnout cases as Andrea Jaeger had been catalytic, there’s no question that Capriati’s decline had been the tipping point for a major reevaluation.
Which leads us to Coco Gauff. As this American prodigy has soared up the ranks, there’s been talk that perhaps the rules should be relaxed so that a 15-year-old as skilled as Gauff should be allowed to play more. Gauff addressed this last year at Wimbledon.
“I feel I would obviously play more than the rules state,” she said, adding, “Even if the restrictions weren’t there, I still think I wouldn’t play, like, as much as players do, the older players do, just because I’m still trying to develop my game and I’m still trying to train.”
Gauff turns 16 on March 13. Starting then, she’ll be allowed to play up to 16 events per season, and, should she qualify, the Olympics and WTA Finals. For what it’s worth, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty has played 17 events over the last year, one more than world No. 2 Simona Halep.
Such is the Capriati legacy: A feisty ingénue who eventually became a champion. But also, a cautionary fable about prodigies and the spotlight.