The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era (W): No. 17, Jennifer Capriati

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Jennifer Capriati beat Monica Seles in the quarters on her way to her “unimaginable” first major title. (AP)

Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.

(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)

17. Jennifer Capriati 

Years played: 1990–2004
Titles: 14
Major titles: 3 (2001 French Open; 2001, 2002 Australian Open​​)​

“If you believe, dreams do come true,” Capriati said before holding up the champion’s trophy at the 2001 Australian Open. It was an appropriate sentiment for the moment, even if she went on to contradict it a few seconds later.

“I can’t believe this is happening!” Capriati cried.

She wasn’t the only one. By 2001, the 24-year-old had been many things—prodigy, Great American Hope, Olympic gold medalist, Top 10 player and cautionary tale. But after 11 years on tour, and one well-publicized case of burnout, “Grand Slam champion” didn’t seem to be in her destiny. Even the sober New York Times called her victory in Melbourne “an unimaginable performance.”

Capriati had begun the previous decade as the latest—and some believed the greatest—in a long line of U.S. prodigies. She was a giggling young slugger from Florida who was pictured with Bart Simpson in the pages of Tennis Magazine at age 13. At first, Capriati survived the suffocating hype. She reached the French Open semifinals in 1990, and the Wimbledon and US Open semifinals in 1991. The next year, she upset Steffi Graf in the gold-medal match at the Barcelona Olympics.

Even then, though, Capriati’s seemingly unstoppable rise had run into an obstacle: Monica Seles. At the 1991 US Open, Seles beat Capriati in a classic semifinal. Capriati had thrown everything she had at Seles, but Seles had fended it off. No longer on a magic carpet ride to No. 1, Capriati grew disillusioned with the prodigy’s life. In 1993, she lost in the first round at the Open; in ’94 she left the tour.

Yet even when she tried to escape the spotlight, the spotlight found her. Capriati was arrested for marijuana possession in Coral Gables, Fla., and her mug shot, complete with nose ring, was splashed across front pages across the country. The prodigy of 13 appeared to be washed up at 18. To guard against future cases of teen burnout, the WTA instituted the so-called Capriati Rule, which limited how many tournaments a young player could enter.

But Capriati’s story wasn’t finished. She went through rehab and crept back onto the tour. By the end of the ’90s, she had won her first title in six years. At the 2000 Australian Open, she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal since her loss to Seles in New York nine years earlier. Twelve months after that in Australia, she beat Seles in the quarters on her way to her “unimaginable” first major title. By the end of the year she was No. 1 in the world.

Along the way, she gave tennis a second Capriati Rule: Comebacks, second acts, redemption for past sins—anything can happen if you believe.

Defining Moment: After the final point of her first Grand Slam win, at the 2001 Australian Open, Capriati celebrated in an entirely unscripted yet wholly appropriate way: She began to hop across Rod Laver Arena, and she couldn’t stop. “Who would have thought I’d ever make it here after so much has happened?” asked the woman who had gone from prodigy to cautionary tale to champion by the time she was 24.

Watch: Highlights from the 2001 French Open final 

Follow the men's and women's countdowns of The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era throughout the month of February right here.

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