Captivating Capriati: A look at one of the most fascinating careers in history

andrewhendrie in Features 29 Mar 2020
Jennifer Capriati Career
Jennifer Capriati compiled a legendary career (PA Images)

One of the most talented players tennis has ever seen, Jennifer Capriati overcame immense adversity to put together a decorated career that included three Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal.

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In celebration of Capriati’s 44th birthday today, we take a look at one of the most captivating careers in tennis.

Age records

Capriati is famous for shattering various age records in tennis and will forever go down in history as an unrivalled teenage phenom when she first burst onto the scene in 1990.

Jennifer Capriati in 1991 (PA Images)

One of just nine players to win the Junior Orange Bowl Championship twice, Capriati made her professional debut as a 13-year-old and reached the final in two of her first three WTA tournaments, going from unranked to No. 25 in the space of a week – something completely unimaginable in contemporary tennis.

Capriati age records in 1990

  • Youngest player to reach a WTA final
  • Youngest player to reach the French Open semi-finals
  • Youngest ever seed at Wimbledon
  • Youngest player to qualify for season-ending championships

Capriati was also the fourth youngest player to win a WTA title when she prevailed as a 14-year-old in Puerto Rico, defeating Zina Garrison in the final.

Olympic Gold ?

Establishing herself as a top 10 player in 1991 after winning two more WTA titles and advancing to Grand Slam semi-finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (stunning nine-time champion Martina Navratilova in the former and becoming the youngest ever semi-finalist at SW19), Capriati would experience one her career highlights the following season.

Capriati with her gold medal (PA Images)

At 16 years of age, Capriati came from a set down to beat Steffi Graf 3-6 6-3 6-4 to claim Olympic Gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

“It was so emotional,” Capriati said after her unforgettable triumph. “I had the chills the whole time. I just can’t believe it. All week I watched the other athletes up there and I was with them and I thought, ‘Wow, that would be so cool.’ “

Roller-Coaster Years ?

1994-95: Break from tennis

At the 1993 U.S. Open, Capriati lost in the opening round to Leila Meskhi – the first time in her career that she’d been defeated in the first round of any tournament. That and various off-court personal issues ultimately led to Capriati taking a break from the tour for two years, with the American playing just one match in 1994 and not featuring at all in 1995.

1996: Return to the tour

Capriati made her comeback as an unranked player in Essen, where she reached the quarter-finals. It wasn’t long until Capriati made her way back up the rankings, progressing to her first final in three years in Chicago – defeating Monica Seles along the way – while she also competed in her first major tournaments since 1993 at the French and U.S. Opens. Capriati ended the year inside the top 25, but would find the next couple of years extremely challenging…

1997-98: Rankings slide

Capriati played just three tournaments in 1997 but still managed to keep her ranking afloat at a year-end mark of No. 66 due to reaching the final of Sydney to start the season. However, Capriati would tumble out of the top 200 after missing the first half of 1998 and despite winning her first Grand Slam match in five years at Wimbledon, she couldn’t make it back inside the top 100 by the end of the year, finishing at No. 101.

Return to form, Grand Slam crowns and World No. 1 Ranking ?

After enduring a number of tough years, both on and off the court, Capriati would go on to enjoy a successful next five years or so, returning to the sort of form she produced when she first burst onto the tour as a 13-year-old prodigy.

Capriati won her first WTA title in six years in 1999 at Strasbourg and made her first Grand Slam semi-final in nine years at the 2000 Australian Open. By the end of the year, Capriati had defeated Serena Williams (her first top six win in four years) and qualified for the year-end championships for the first time in seven years, finishing the season at No. 14 in the world – her highest ranking in seven years. Capriati also contributed to the victorious American Fed Cup team, winning a singles and doubles rubber in a final win over Spain.

2001 will go down as the best year of Capriati’s career. Following years of off-court turmoil, Capriati finally captured the Grand Slam title that her immense talent deserved, with the American defeating Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport to make the Australian Open final, before completing a straight sets victory over Martina Hingis to claim her maiden major silverware.

Capriati after the 2001 Australian Open final (PA Images)

At No. 12, Capriati was the lowest seed to win the Australian Open title and the first player since Tracy Austin in 1979 to defeat the top two ranked players in straight sets at a Grand Slam. As a result, Capriati re-entered the top 10 and complete the longest absence from the top 10 in WTA history (eight years).

Capriati would go on to compile a 19-match winning streak at Grand Slam level in 2001, edging Kim Clijsters in a dramatic French Open final to secure her second major title, emerging triumphant by a 1-6 6-4 12-10 scoreline, becoming just the fifth woman to win the Australian and French Opens back-to-back.

Capriati’s unbeaten streak would come to an end at the hands of Justin Henin in the Wimbledon semi-finals, but after also making the final four at the U.S. Open, the American would crown a sensational year by rising to World No. 1 for the first time.

Grand Slam comeback for the ages

In one of the all-time great Grand Slam final escape acts, Capriati would win her third major title at the 2002 Australian Open in a final rematch against Hingis. Played in almost unbearable heat, Capriati staged a miraculous comeback, recovering from 4-6 0-4 down and saving four championship points to prevail 4-6 7-6(7) 6-2, completing one of the most famous victories in Grand Slam history.

“I really don’t know how I managed to win today,” Capriati said. “I kept fighting. On those match points when I was down I just went for it.”

It was the first time since 1956 that a woman had saved a match point to win the Australian Open final.

Career slowly comes to a halt

Capriati would finish 2002 at No. 3 in the world but eye surgery in the off-season would see her enter her Australian Open title defence with limited preparation – and as a result, she became the first defending champion to lose in the opening round, falling to the unheralded Marlene Weingartner. Capriati won her first title in 28 months in New Haven and reached the semi-finals of the U.S. Open to qualify for the season-ending championships, going down to Henin in the semi-finals.

2004 would ultimately be the final full season of Capriati’s career, with various injury problems becoming too difficult to overcome. Capriati would finish runner-up on the clay of Rome in her highlight for the season and also made semi-finals at the French and U.S. Opens, but would only play two more matches for her career after Flushing Meadows, beating Meghann Shaughnessy in Philadelphia before suffering a crushing 0-6 1-6 loss to Vera Zvonareva in the final match of her professional career.

Capriati would retire after finishing 2004 as the World No. 10, bringing an end to one of the fascinating tennis careers in history.