Tennis Prose




Dec/21

13

Facing Jennifer Capriati

Jennifer Capriati with ITF top junior Alexandra Eala at Saddle Brook in 2016.

By Scoop Malinowski

When Jennifer Capriati won the 2001 Australian Open title 64 63 vs. Martina Hingis, one of the greatest comebacks in sports history was capped. The American’s fairy tale victory was so endearing and touching, I remember Biofile interviewing Fox News TV host Sean Hannity shortly after that triumph, he told me he was crying watching the ESPN telecast. As were many sports fans around the world.

The 1992 Olympic gold medalist (beat Steffi Graf in final at age 16) became a household name as a teenager. The first segment of her career was sidetracked because of frustration, pressure, expectations and some personal problems in the mid 90s. Then after a two year break from pro tennis, Capriati returned in 1996 and after five years of up and down results, won her first major title in Melbourne in 2001 (beat Hingis), the 2001 French Open (beat Kim Clijsters) and then became world No. 1 in October 2001. Her last Grand Slam title was the 2002 Australian Open title where she saved four championship points vs Hingis.

Capriati won three Grand Slams total and 14 WTA singles title, and one doubles title in Rome with Monica Seles. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.

Players, fans, coaches and tennis insiders share their memories of Facing Jennifer Capriati…

Rick Macci: I used to call her Sparky. She was a happy-go-lucky, impressionable kid, she just liked to compete and battle. At ten years old I could see greatness, the way she was wired. She came to me when she was ten, she had amazing fundamentals by the late, great Jimmy Evert. She had her knees already bent in the parking lot. She had her racquet back before you could blink an eye. The three years I spent with her she was the greatest female junior in the history of the United States and that’s says a lot. By fourteen she turned pro and was top ten in the world. You don’t see that anymore because of the age eligibility rule. She was phenomenal. For her to take the hiatus and then come back and win three Grand Slams and become no. 1 in the world … there’s an amazing movie in the Jennifer Capriati story.

Dr. Cal Morris: I met Jennifer when she was nine. My son played junior tennis and later at Rutgers University Division 1. My friend Tony Cacic called me up in the summer, he said he had a great player for the 12’s nationals in Cherry Hill, NJ. They needed a place to stay in NJ during the tournament. She and Stefano stayed at me house that week. She won the 12s when she was nine. Tony Cacic also brought Monica Seles to Florida. His daughter Sandra was a top 50 pro. Jennifer is a great person. The best athlete I ever saw in junior tennis. She was the junior of the year two times. At twelve she won the National 18s. She turned pro at thirteen and made the finals in two of her first three pro tournaments (lost to Gabriela Sabatini in Boca Raton and Martina Navratilova in Hilton Head finals). Very nice person. But she never had a life outside tennis. Stefano was a wonderful guy. He was tough, a hard-nosed Italian. Great guy.

Philip Milford III: I watched her as a little girl sometimes at Holiday Park. Chris Evert took to her and hit with her on occasion . During her practice, dad Stefano was always saying, “the feet, Jenny, the feet.” Stefano told me “It’s a big party for Steffi Graf right now.” He was right about that. I played doubles with them one afternoon. Jennifer was about ten. Mom was lovely but didn’t see her much at Holiday Park, once in a while though. Mom was a flight attendant, I believe.

Richard Lee: I played with her at Rick Macci’s when she was about eight, I was twelve. There were a lot of good juniors at the time like Tommy Ho and she would train with all of us older kids. Rick would play a game where all four players would be at net and he would feed in rapid-fire succession. She would tattoo someone with a massive backhand at least a couple times per game. She was fearless.

Dennis Alloco: I was there the first day Jen hit on one of the courts at Saddlebrook. She was twelve years old. Even back then she was hitting laser flat bombs with very little spin. She was a light that I knew was going to throw the women’s game on its ear and by God, she didn’t disappoint.

Andrei Kozlov: When I start to work with Jennifer Capriati she already won Australian Open, she was already No. 1 in the world. Rick Macci called me – I’m sparring with Rick Macci on the court. I was hitting the ball good. And he say, You need to go hit with Jennifer Capriati in West Palm Beach. I drive one hour from Pompano Beach to West Palm Beach and I came to the practice one hour before the practice. And I meet Stefano and he tell me stories about his life, about Jennifer’s life. And I ask him about Rick Macci. he say, Rick Macci is a joke. I say, Why a joke? He say to me, Because he say to every player who came to his academy, You will be the next Jennifer Capriati. But he don’t know how much work I put in for my daughter, how much we work to make her strong. Jennifer Capriati…just one in the world.

I have other stories of Jennifer Capriati. I remember Stefano told me when Jennifer was eight months old he bent Jennifer’s hand into a forehand and backhand grip. She was just a baby, she didn’t know, but I already teach her. I do the same thing with my two sons Stefan and Boris.

I hit with Jennifer at PGA in West Palm Beach before Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina. She won the Family Circle Cup that year, she beat Hingis in the final, 6-0 third set. After that, Stefano asked me to travel with her but I had to work at Rick Macci for $12 an hour. She was very hard worker. She never sit down in practice, she would take breaks, stand there but never sit down. She doesn’t bring her own water or drink, she would drink from the water fountain. She work so hard, never complain, a great example. I train with Camila Giorgi and she trains with the similar intensity. Before me, Jennifer train with Xavier Malisse. She and he used the same Prince racquet. She decided to change from the red Prince to the blue Prince. She asked me which one she hit better with. I said, red – better backhand… blue – better serve and forehand. She changed to the blue. She used all gut strings. She wore 9 1/2 shoes, same as me.

We trained two hours in the morning. Then she would do some things with her father, work on serve. Then we would play points and games for two hours in the afternoon. When we were on the court, Stefano would throw the first ball to me and tell me to hit the first ball, feed ball, as hard as I could to her… so she could get used to being attacked early in the point. When I would get too tired, Stefano said to stay on one side and hit balls to move her side to side. I used all these tips and ideas for coaching at my academy.

Karen Meister: I did the production for the Sunshine/Continental Cups when it was her last year as an amateur. Of course she won. But rather than a traditional trophy, I asked for her sneakers. We bronzed one of her sneakers and made a trophy with it that said, paraphrasing because it was a long time ago,  Congrats on your step into a successful tennis future. I carried her other sneaker in my trunk for years.

Angelica Gavaldon: I remember playing her at Easter Bowl juniors and some Nationals. I am three years older. I don’t remember exactly what age we were when I first played her. But no older than thirteen, she was probably ten. I remember every television camera and media at our match filming her – which was pretty rare to see that at a junior tournament. If I recall correctly I think I beat her … I then played her in a final at a consolation match at a National. It was three sets pretty close. I think she beat me. It’s weird that I don’t remember, I remember my matches and scores pretty well. I next saw her at the USTA junior European tour. It was Lisa Raymond, Erica de lone, Jennifer Capriati and me. We made quarters at the Italian Open and I remember vividly how her dad would not let her drink Coca Cola, so we would hide it and laugh in the locker rooms so she could drink her soft drink. I have beautiful memories of her with her dad.

They had a special, beautiful relationship. I remember her sitting on his lap when she lost in Italy and he was so sweet to her while she cried. She was so mature on court and just a giggly kid off the court. I was playing in Boca Raton when she did her pro debut. Amazing. And that year we were both nominated ‘New Kids On The Block’ at the US Open. She got the award of course. We lived together in Tampa, Florida. She had not hit a ball in months and we went out and rallied and she did not miss one shot for what it seemed a ten minute rally. We were really good friends We loved doing silly things, like going to the grocery store and discovering the latest fat-free cake. We spoke about cute boys. And clothes, shopping. Just normal things.

Pete Buntemeyer: I used to see Jennifer hitting on Court 10 – Jimmy Evert’s teaching court – at Holiday Park. I was also in the player’s box with John Evert, who was helping coach Jennifer, at the tournament in La Costa which she won, and received a little Mazda convertible. The same vehicle she was picked up in in Miami, when her troubles began and things went down hill for a little while. It was wonderful to see Jennifer turn things around on and off the court, and go on to win s Grand Slam. What a great story!

Harold Solomon: I worked with her when she went from 150 in the world to top 10.

Question: Any standout memories you can share?

Harold Solomon: Not online.

Sandy Mittleman:  I’ve always looked at Jen as someone that is rarely talked about in conversations of champions of the past. How I ended up practicing with Jen… her mom and dad, they were living in Palm Beach Gardens at the time. I was working at Ballen Isles Country Club, I was a coach there of high-performance juniors. The interesting thing was at that time I happened to be with one of our juniors at the Port Washington tournament in New York. I remember getting the phone call from a coach who I was working with running the program. Him saying, Jen is in town, she needs someone to practice with her. Need you to come back to Florida. I met her, Stefano, to practice with her for four days, as a preparation before leaving for Australia (2001). At the time I wasn’t doing any high level hitting, I wasn’t in the best of shape. She was unbelievably nice. Stefano was unbelievably nice. I learned a lot in those four days. Jennifer never complained about anything, she didn’t have a problem with anything. If I was missing more she was encouraging, super nice, even on the breaks. She wasn’t overly talkative, she was easy going, relaxed, to me, next to no stress. When she left after the fourth and last day before going to Australia, she said thanks for everything. I remember watching her matches in the Australian Open, thinking, Oh, she’s making progress, she’s winning some matches. You know how tennis is, things are looking good, she’s getting some momentum… That final against Hingis was unbelievable. Hingis was the dominant player the year before. Then the next year Jen saved I think three (actually four) Championship points in the final, the heat was so bad both players were sitting together in the tunnel. I never saw that happen during a men’s match. She was unique. It was amazing how she achieved it, more so than what she achieved. The whole, brief experience of hitting with her for two hours a day for four days…I couldn’t find a bad or critical thing to say about her. My short experience with Jen was nothing sport of fantastic.  

Miguel Seabra: I saw her at 2 am at a post party during the 1999 Australian Open and what I saw… and what I saw was quite gobsmacking… made me think, “…She’ll never do anything else in tennis…” One year after she was a semifinalist in Melbourne, two years after she won her first Grand Slam there on her way to No. 1.

Sander Groen: I did not really know who she was but I was hitting with her at the Australian Open after she won her first round (vs Silvia Talaja 64 61) and slightly sprained her ankle during that match, just to see if she would be fit enough to play her second round match (defeated Meilen Tu 61 63). This was the year she was defending her title (2002).

We played for like ten minutes and she decided her ankle was fine to play her next match. My friend Richie Sanchez suggested me to them and I was curious to feel how good she would be.

Hard to tell how good she was because we only hit cross court and it is widely known that the biggest difference between men and women is the level when playing on the run.

Question: McEnroe would have double baged Serena?

Sander Groen: Yes, Serena would have no chance vs McEnroe. She would have no chance to return first serve except when it is lucky. Make them run a little bit, dropshots, short dinky angles etc. I challenged Muchova last summer but she has no interest to get beat by a 52 year old that doesn’t play serious any more.

Bill Seward: I have a friend whose son used to train with Jennifer in Florida. He knew her family when she was 9-14 years old. I remember him saying, ‘No one competed harder than her.’ She won the national 12 and unders indoors as a 9 year old at the Cherry Hill Racquet Club in New Jersey back then.

Richard Pagliaro: Standout Capriati memories… Saving Championship points and beating Martina Hingis in the Australian Open final. Beating Kim Clijsters 12-10 in the third set to win Roland Garros. Losing to Monica Seles in the US Open classic. Winning the Olympic gold medal in 1992… I got a quick one-on-one with her at Rockefeller Center when she was promoting a reality TV show and she said some interesting stuff. She said Nadal was her favorite player to watch because he fought so hard, every point played with passion. She said Nadal played like how she tried to play. It was a press conference for The Superstars TV show, summer of 2009 I think. She came to New York City to promote it.

Alex St. Hill: I used to hit with her at Saddlebrook. I remember as a 13 year old she loved Bart Simpson and she hit the ball clean and hard as hell. She was a sweet kid, so was her brother Steven.

John Paul Fruttero: I never played or hit with her. I just played against her brother Steve, who played at University of Arizona while I was at CAL. Super nice guy, we had our battles!

Question: You had to be thinking about her a little bit while playing him?

John Paul Fruttero: Of course. And her name was brought up in conversations. There was extra motivation to beat him.

Marty Secada: Funny, in the Richard Williams movie they make a big deal about Capriati busted for smoking pot. Of course, Cannabis is legal almost everywhere now and many pro athletes endorse different brands. I knew one of her ex boyfriends, pure beefcake, so very interested in her choices. Not a rose-colored image but her ‘what you see is what you get’ was refreshing.

Lucy Nixon: I met her in Wimbledon in 2003. I’d seen her play in Eastbourne just the week before, then was at every single one of her matches at Wimbledon. One day I was on the old court 2 and her mum and Matthew Perry were sitting in the row behind me. I chatted with them a little and had a selfie with Denise. After the quarterfinals I was loitering around hoping to get one last glimpse of Jen before going home and her mum opened the door and told the security guard she was taking me through. I got to meet Jennifer, who gave me a big hug and thanked me for all my support. When she heard me speak in a quiet room away from the stadium she realised that I was in fact English and not American. She told me my support meant even more to her.

Jennifer Capriati with Lucy Nixon.

Question: How did a British woman become such an avid supporter of Jennifer?

Lucy Nixon: Well firstly women of Mediterranean origin are my type. But mostly it was her attitude and her confidence on the court. I liked that she was outspoken. I also liked her rebel nature – she didn’t do everything the way it was expected and she’d speak her mind. I liked that she liked to party – I did too! I also liked her comeback story being someone myself who had difficult teenage years then went on to become successful in my adult years. It’s inspiring. I loved her skill and talent and enjoyed her game. The serve could be infuriating at times but the double-handed backhand was a beautiful groundstroke and her service return was excellent when she was on form. The more I saw her play the more I saw how she interacted with fans and was kinder to the fans than other players were. One day at Wimbledon her match had been rained out for like four days. When she finally got to play and won, she literally signed autographs for the entire front row! Including the back of a shirt worn by a Navy officer! Then he was like, ‘This is my uniform shirt!’ and laughed and she was like, ‘Ooops!’ I’m still Facebook friends with that military guy now and that day is a fond memory for us both.

Lucy Nixon with Denise Capriati.

Gilad Bloom: I used to play backgammon with her in the Key Biscayne event, lovely girl and ridiculous talent, won the Olympics at sixteen or something crazy. Hope she’s doing well today.

Will Bull: I went to Rick Macci’s tennis academy at Grenelefe with her for eighteen months and I was on the United States Junior National Team with her for a year and hit with her often. She hit the ball so cleanly and she had a world class backhand. Super nice girl.

Nenad Cacic: I had the privilege of hitting with her in 1999-2000 as a coach in SaddleBrook Resort, Harry Hopman Tennis Academy, under her coach at the time Tommy Thompson! I will always remember and cherish the times.

Jay Stifolter:  I have played and trained with Jennifer. When I was fifteen and she was twelve we both were at Rick Macci Tennis Academy. I wasn’t near her skill level, but I worked my way up and we all used to go to her condo to play video games with her and her brother. I watched her beat down nationally ranked 18 year old boys at 12 years old. Also, watched her give Macci’s best talent – can’t retrieve his name at the moment – fits on the court. I was there when she was thirteen, and when she turned pro. I was on the training court with her just before she went on Tour. One of my greatest tennis memories.

Anonymous: I remember Stefano went into a party at Roland Garros and dragged Jennifer out of the Hard Rock Cafe and said, “I don’t see a Grand Slam champion here at this hour.“ And took her back to the hotel.

Yayuk Basuki: She was up and coming player with the most talent when I play against her at the Olympics Barcelona in 1992. She was sixteen. I was playing good tennis at that time. I beat Mercedes Paz 61 64 and Mary Pierce 06 63 10-8 in the early rounds before losing to Jennifer 63 64 in third round. She was tough, played with hunger and consistency. Solid tennis. At the Olympics she kept herself to somehow focus I guess. Most of the time I see her she was always alone that time in the Olympic Village.

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2 comments

  • Douglas Day · December 15, 2021 at 6:11 pm

    Scoop Sandra Cacic is a teaching pro here at The Landings in Sarasota. I had no idea her folks played such a role but she won Aukland and a 39th ranking.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 15, 2021 at 6:21 pm

    Hi Doug, can you please find out if she played Capriati? I would like to interview her either way. Biofile too.

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