Out of David’s Closet: Jennifer Capriati

I found this shot online when I heard Jennifer Capriati would be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. This was taken during Capriati’s first professional match at The Virginia Slims of Florida in 1990. I was a huge tennis nut growing up and during my freshman year of college I headed down to Boca Raton for spring break.  My family had a place about a 15 minute drive to the Polo Club where the tournament was held.

I went down with six girls and we drove around in a gold Lincoln Town Car. Somehow, I managed to drag two of them with me to catch probably the most hyped match involving a 13 year old of all time.

Tennis seemed really accessible at that time. We bought tickets right at the gate and were able to head close to the court to watch the match (it was an intimate stadium to say the least). Ushers weren’t as difficult then as they are now.  I remember one year at the tournament walking on the court with my best friend and taking pictures with Mary Joe Fernandez after a late night doubles match. In 1990 we even took the free Virginia Slims cigarettes they handed out and smoked them just outside of the stadium. It was freshman year spring break after all.

When we sat down, we didn’t realize a bunch of Capriati’s school friends were seated behind us and they held up “Go Jennifer” signs pretty much after every point she won. It was annoying but I remember the photographers taking pictures and I thought we might have a chance of ending up in a publication. I shouldn’t be surprised I ended up as a photo editor for Tennis Magazine.

Back then the non-slam events had such an exotic feel to them. Because few early rounds at tournaments were ever televised, I never really had an idea of the atmosphere the smaller events had. Seeing the draws scribbled on the wooden signs was seriously exciting for me. Players walked around the grounds barely recognizable since there wasn’t any internet presence; practice courts weren’t blocked by fans holding up cell phones. It was new and fascinating to me and I often arrived hours before the first match and left only after the last ball was struck just trying to soak up the atmosphere.

Capriati’s first round match was a blur. I went to all of her matches that tournament right up to the final she lost to Gabriela Sabatini. The one match that sticks out in my mind was the quarterfinal against Helena Sukova. I really thought Sukova was going to handle Capriati but she only won a handful of games.  Sukova just didn’t know what to do with the pace and precision Capriati offered up. It really was the end of women’s serve and volley tennis and it was shocking to me.

When we got back to Boston, I bought Sports Illustrated and Newsweek and found the shots of Capriati’s friends in both magazines. I’m under the “R” wearing an extra- large tee-shirt when I was definitely an extra-small. My two friends are to the left, under the “E” and “F” both wearing Ray- Bans. I remember my friend bought a blazer at Cignal on Newbury Street (remember that store?) and we were so excited it made it into the magazines. Shoulder pads were clearly still in style at that point.

Years later I learned my cousins used to babysit Capriati when she lived in Wesley Chapel. They said she was a really sweet kid and her dad used to tell them over and over that she would one day become number one. I thought back to that week in Boca Raton and remembered thinking she was a sweet kid and probably would be number one.

I’m really excited to see Capriati headed into the Hall of Fame. The first year I was credentialed at the US Open, I sat with the photographers during her semifinal match against Justine Henin. It’s definitely a top five tennis moment for me. The energy she produced in Ashe Stadium was just as palpable as the energy she produced in 1990. Funny enough, I’m heading to Rhode Island tomorrow for a family reunion just outside Newport. I’ve never met Capriati, never worked with her and won’t be attending the induction, but I’ll be close enough to almost bookend her career. It’s too bad we didn’t get to see more of Capriati but I’m grateful for the memories she’s provided: of tense matches, spring break, babysitting, cigarettes and shoulder pads. There aren’t too many other players who have given me as much.

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