Tennis

Phenom life carries heavy risks

Jennifer Capriati
The world fell in love with the game and charm of 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Before there was Lindsay Lohan, before there was Justin Bieber, before there was Britney Spears, there was Jennifer Capriati. By 13, she was going to be the next American sweetheart, the next Chris Evert.

At 36 now, she should be just finishing up her great career and moving into the booth as a tennis analyst. Instead, she is TMZ, Dr. Drew and reality TV all rolled into one.

Jennifer Capriati

DID JEN HIT EX-BF?

Jennifer Capriati denies that she's target of an arrest warrant on a charge she struck her ex-boyfriend.

Reports are that her ex-boyfriend — who once tried to get an injunction against her, claiming she was stalking him — now claims that she was beating him in the chest on Valentine’s Day at a fitness club in Florida. The report is that police are considering charges. (UPDATE: Capriati has been issued a summons to appear in court on stalking and battery charges.)

Capriati says the stories are all wrong, that the ex-boyfriend is the bad guy and that her spotlight continues to burn her. Late on the night of March 8, she tweeted that she had pushed someone who verbally assaulted her and that the facts would come out. By the morning of March 9, that was no longer on her Twitter page.

The phenom life is not all it’s cracked up to be. We keep getting examples of pop culture prodigies and phenoms crashing and burning. Have I mentioned Tiger Woods? When I was in college, I went to his house and interviewed him when he wasn’t even a teen. Capriati was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when she was 13.

That’s ridiculous.

These prodigies are just too far out in front of themselves, their talent greater than their maturity. And then, too often they’re put in places where kids aren’t supposed to be, aren’t able to handle. They are exposed to things they shouldn’t be, and oftentimes, they get no direction, aren’t taught how to handle the normal problems of life.

We keep hearing this same story over and over. Yet, amazingly, this is the life so many parents want for their children, this instant superstardom. LeBron James stands out as someone who handled it. Venus and Serena Williams, too. But they aren’t the norm.

The money keeps growing and the pop culture keeps getting bigger, and those things feed on each other and make not only the rewards grow, but also the dangers.

Especially the dangers, in fact.

Jennifer Capriati

This mug shot of 18-year-old Jennifer Capriati is indelibly inked in the memories of sports fans.

Coral Gables Police Dept/AFP via Getty Images

“Tennis has given me so much and challenged me in so many ways,” Capriati said last summer when she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. “It has given me great joy on and off the court, as well as a lot of pain on and off the court. But it has taught me what overcoming fear is all about.

“It has taught me what hard work and commitment means. It has taught me what self-love is. It has taught me what acceptance and forgiveness can bring. It hasn’t always been easy, and I’m still learning.”

Now, we don’t know what is really happening with Capriati and her ex-boyfriend. She has been quoted in the past saying what a bad guy he is. So this isn’t meant as a judgment on her.

In fact, I find her a sympathetic person. To the tennis world, she seems like a family member. We watched her grow up. At 14, she was in the semifinals of the French Open. By 18?

The tennis family will never forget her mug shot, after an arrest on misdemeanor marijuana possession, partied out, ring in her nostril, black hair across her face. Others with her were charged with possession of more powerful drugs. It came a year after an allegation she had shoplifted a $15 ring at a mall.

The demands were too much on her — for that matter, on almost anyone. The sport was chewing her up, and no one had taught her how to handle normal teen issues, much less hers on a worldwide scale.

It escalated. She would enter drug rehab at least twice. But then she came back, and she won more in tennis than before. She won three majors, reached No. 1.

That was supposed to be the end of the story. But injuries forced her out, and the TMZ life picked up. She dated a porn star named Dale DaBone. She overdosed on prescription drugs with the tennis community worried about whether it was an accident.

“I probably will definitely see how that goes and pray for everyone involved,” Serena Williams said back then. “If there’s any way I can do anything to help, reach out, I definitely will do that.”

Another former No. 1, Kim Clijsters, tweeted this at the time: “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Jen! I hope she makes it through ok and can get some help!”

Since then, a different ex-boyfriend talked about her making hundreds of phone calls a day to stalk him. (She denies that.) She made the Hall of Fame. And, now, this latest incident.

To the tennis family, she’s like a wayward daughter, scaring everyone every time her name pops up in the news.

They aren’t even always big issues. It’s just that she’s living on TMZ.

People talk about fighting demons, but it’s a bigger issue than that.

Where did the demons come from?

It’s the phenom life that beat her up. Phenoms and pop culture. What a mess.

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