NEWPORT, R.I. -- The teenaged-tennis phenom who came of age under the watchful eye of the world is now a 36-year-old woman who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this past weekend in Newport, R.I.
“It’s been quite journey,” Jennifer Capriati said before her induction ceremony on center court. “Here, I look back at all the really great things that I’ve accomplished and the achievements I’ve had and those achievements I’ve overcome.”
Bursting onto the scene as a 13-year-old tennis prodigy who lost in the final of her first Grand Slam event, the 1990 French Open, Capriati became an Olympic gold medalist by age 16.
“I remember that as being one of the highlights of my career,” she said of winning the gold medal at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. “It was the greatest experience. It was so much fun just to be playing for my country, seeing all other the other athletes. It was just such a camaraderie. Even though everyone was competing against each other, really all the differences were put aside.
“I met many athletes, not just in tennis. I got to know a lot of them, we came together we supported each other, cheered for each other in a way that I never felt before. It was the most fun, and I think that’s why I played so well and I was able to win. It was stress free and I was having so much fun and it really came out in my playing.”
Capriati had quite a run in Barcelona, beating Spanish fan favorite, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, in the semifinals and then upsetting Steffi Graf, the defending Olympic champion and one of the most dominant players of the time. Graf had beaten her first five opponents in the Olympic Games in straight sets and had beaten Capriati in their four previous matches. Capriati beat Graf 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, for the gold.
It ended up being the only time Capriati ever beat Graf.
Capriati, who also won a Fed Cup championship with the U.S. team, became the youngest player to be ranked in the world top-10 at age 14.
But just a year after her Olympic victory she bottomed out. After losing in the first round of the 1993 U.S. Open, Capriati went to drug rehabilitation after being arrested for shoplifting and marijuana possession. She did not play any competitive matches in 1995.
Capriati eventually overcame all of that to make one of the greatest comebacks in tennis history, winning two major titles in 2001 and another one in 2002. Starting in October 2001 she held the world No. 1 position for 18 weeks.
Her final Grand Slam victory, in the 2002 Australian Open, included arguably one of the best matches ever played. Down 4-6, 0-4 to Martina Hingis, Capriati rallied to win the match.
Still, Capriati said during her tearful induction speech on Saturday that she never expected the Hall of Fame to call.
“Even though my life has taken some twists and turns that I didn’t expect, I still managed to overcome adversity, win Grand Slams, pocket a gold medal, become the No. 1 player in the world and now stand at the podium of the International Tennis Hall of Fame,” she said before pausing to compose herself during her induction speech.
“Yes, I’ve come a long way from when I was a little girl playing on the courts at Holiday Park back when I was a pupil with Mr. Everett alongside my dad. I’ve come a long way since those days when I didn’t know how to keep score, and when I won I didn’t know I won until Mr. Everett had to tell me.”
Capriati chose another former teenage tennis prodigy, Monica Seles, to introduce her.
“As powerful as her ground strokes were, it was her fight that was her greatest weapon,” Seles, a 2009 Hall of Fame inductee, said of Capriati. “No matter how many challenges that were thrown Jennifer’s way she fought and she fought and she fought.”
After Capriati's comeback was cut short by knee injuries in 2004, retiring from the sport was not easy.
The New York native and long-time Florida resident faded from the limelight with a 430-176 record and 14 career singles titles. Three years later, she told the New York Daily News that she suffered from bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide. In 2010, she was reportedly rushed to the hospital for an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
“It’s like mourning a loved one,” she said of retiring. “It’s like mourning a relative and part of yourself and it’s not always easy. … It took a long while to accept that and let that go. This is so great for me in a way because it’s putting a lot of closure on my career and I’m able to look forward and give thanks.”
Andy Roddick, who will play for the United States in the London 2012 Olympic Games this month, said he’s glad to see Capriati garnering attention for her tennis.
“You know, we lived through so many storylines with her throughout her career, I'm glad that her tennis is finally getting the credit it deserves,” Roddick said. “She was the No. 1 player, won multiple slams. She was a huge infusion for the game as far as garnering crossover attention. The everyday Joe knew Jennifer Capriati. She was the phenom, then the comeback. It’s a great story, and something that I'm glad it’s getting recognized.”
Capriati was inducted along side Brazilian Guga Kuerten (who also won the French Open in 2001), Spanish tennis great Manuel Orantes, tennis administrator and promoter Mike Davies and wheelchair tennis champion Randy Snow, who was honored posthumously and was also the first Paralympian to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Snow won 22 major titles during his career.
For Capriati, the timing of her induction couldn't have been better.
“Tennis is all about timing and how perfect is the timing of this moment, to Monica being here to Guga, to the Olympics coming up, to remembering my 1992 gold medal win,” she said during her induction speech.
And though there probably won’t be any more comebacks, Capriati said she will always be close to the game.
“I don’t need to be on a tennis court to be part of this game,” she said. “I don’t need to be on a tennis court to remember who I am. Tennis will forever be in my heart.”