This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.
“If you believe, dreams do come true,” Jennifer Capriati told the crowd in Rod Laver Arena as she accepted the winner’s trophy at the 2001 Australian Open. It was a fitting and inspiring sentiment, even if Jennifer went on to contradict it a few seconds later.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” an overwhelmed Capriati admitted.
She wasn’t alone. Capriati had been many things in her 24 years, but most U.S. tennis fans had given up hope that “Grand Slam champion” would ever be among them. Even the normally staid New York Times described her win in Melbourne as “an unimaginable performance.”
But the turn of the century was a time of atonement and redemption for U.S. tennis prodigies. In 1999, Andre Agassi put the memories of his squandered opportunities in Paris behind him when he came out of nowhere to win the French Open and complete a career Grand Slam. Capriati watched her countryman at Roland Garros and was inspired to turn her own, long-stalled, career around.
Like Agassi, at the start of the '90s Capriati had been a much-hyped, sure-shot prodigy, a toothy, giggling slugger from Florida who was going to be the next savior of American tennis. She reached the final of her first professional tournament at 13, reached the semifinals at the French Open that spring, and quickly reached the Top 10. She was the “youngest ever” to do just about everything in the women’s game. That included, it seems likely, having her own video game; Sega Genesis created “Jennifer Capriati Tennis” in 1992. At first, Capriati lived up to her considerable hype. At age 16, she upset Steffi Graf to win the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Yet even then Capriati’s meteoric rise was in the process of flaming out. The previous year, she had lost a classic, heart-breaking semifinal to Monica Seles at the U.S. Open. Capriati had hit a ceiling: She had thrown her best at Seles, but in the end Seles had been better. No longer ascending, Capriati became disenchanted with life on tour. At the 1993 Open, she lost her opening match, the first time that had happened at any event in her career. Yearning to be a normal teenager and escape the spotlight’s glare, she left the tour and played just one event in 1994 and 1995.
Instead, the spotlight quickly found Capriati, and shined even more brightly and harshly on her. In May 1994, a mug shot of the 18-year-old, complete with nose ring, was splashed across TV screens and front pages around the world. Capriati had been arrested for marijuana possession in what was described as a “fleabag” motal in Coral Gables, Fla. Sponsors soon fled, her career appeared to be kaput, and the WTA instituted what came to be known as the “Capriati Rule,” which put a limit on how young a girl could be when she turned pro. The giggling slugger of 13 had become a cautionary tale at 18.
Yet her career wasn’t kaput, and her story wasn’t over. After going through rehab, Capriati slowly crept back onto the tour over the last half of the ’90s. By decade’s end, she had won her first title in six years, and she finished 1999 ranked No. 23, up 78 spots from the previous year. A month later, at the 2000 Australian Open, she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal since that famed semi with Seles in ’91. Capriati was a player again.
The following year in Australia, she became, for the first time, a champion. Seeded just 12th, Capriati also got some revenge along the way. In the quarterfinals, she beat Seles; in the semis, she beat the defending champion and the player who had knocked her out the year before, Lindsay Davenport; and in the final she beat three-time champion Martina Hingis, the woman who had taken her place as the teen phenom of the ’90s. After match point, Capriati raised her arms and hopped uncontrollably across the court inside Laver Arena. It was true: She still couldn’t quite believe it.
“Who would have thought I’d ever make it here after so much has happened?” Capriati asked herself and the world. But she wasn’t done yet. Four months later, she won another major title, at Roland Garros, and in October she became No. 1 in the world for the first time.
Jennifer had given tennis a new Capriati Rule: Comebacks, second acts, redemption for past sins—anything is possible in this game.