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Jennifer's escape from tennis led to the drug scene

THE SEEDS OF TROUBLE MAY have been sown even earlier than that brilliantly sunny afternoon in March 1990 when a bright, bubbly 13-year-old tennis prodigy named Jennifer Capriati made her professional debut at a Virginia Slims tournament in Boca Raton, Fla. After winning her first match, she was taken aback by the legions of reporters and photographers who hung on her every girlish giggle at the press conference that followed. "I'm excited about my match," she said, "but I think the media is kind of a little out of control."

No doubt they were. After all, Capriati had already been touted as the heir apparent to the retiring queen of women's tennis, Chris Evert, and the hype, it seemed, was totally justified. Now, just four years later, it is America's onetime teen sweetheart who has become tennis's most spectacular and troubling dropout. On the morning of May 16, police in Coral Gables, Fla., following a phone tip from the mother of a 17-year-old runaway girl, knocked on the door of Room 109 at the Gables Inn motel. Capriati let them into the $50-a-night room, for which she had registered two days earlier, and permitted a search. In a gym duffel bag, along with her personal possessions, police found a small bag of marijuana.

The lawmen were still in the room when Capriati's green Mazda Miata convertible—a tournament prize—pulled into the parking lot. Behind the wheel was Thomas Wineland, 19, whom police later identified as a "drifter" from New Milford, Conn., with a criminal record. With him were the missing girl and 19-year-old Nathan Wilson of Hallandale, Fla. Wine-land walked toward the room smoking a pipe filled with crack cocaine, which he tried to stuff into his pants when he saw the police. The young woman, from nearby Coconut Grove, later turned over two packets of heroin she had concealed in her crotch area.

As elements of the story came to light at midweek, it became evident that for Capriati this was not just a casual weekend fling but part of a deeper descent into the world of drugs. According to The Palm Beach Post, the arrests capped a weekend of partying that had begun Friday night. Capriati had been at a friend's house in Miami, where she met Mark Black, 19. The night desk clerk at the motel says Capriati checked in under her own name late Saturday, using her own credit card. Black told the Post that the party resumed Sunday afternoon and went on until 4 a.m. with as many as 20 visitors to Room 109.

Wineland, who was booked for possession of suspected crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia, told a London tabloid that he and Capriati had smoked crack in the bathroom together. "She smoked for a couple of hours, and then when we stopped, we started smoking reefers. She was also eating painkillers and drinking." Wineland claims she asked him to buy $200 worth of drugs with her money.

According to Wilson's mother, Capriati was not new to the Miami social scene. For several months, said Susan Wilson, "she'd come down [from her home in Boca Raton, just over an hour by car] almost every weekend and just kind of hang out with the group." But Capriati troubles had started long before. "She has had a drug problem for at least a year," says a close friend.

On May 18, two days after the arrest, Capriati entered the Addiction Treatment Center of Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. Without knowing all the details of her problem, Capriati's friends were quick to blame a system that made her a millionaire but denied her so many of the ordinary experiences of childhood and adolescence. "All this has very little to do with Jennifer," says Norman Palmer, proprietor of the Palmer Preparatory School in Wesley Chapel, Fla., which Capriati attended until two years ago. "It has to do with how we position young athletes in our society, what we overlook if there is money changing hands." Adds CBS tennis commentator Mary Carillo: "I don't think children should be allowed to play professional tennis before the age of 18. There ought to be child-labor laws to prevent it."

Yet Capriati was bred for tennis greatness. While she was still in the womb, her father, Stefano, an Italian-born movie stuntman and soccer pro, told his wife, Denise, a former Pan Am flight attendant, that Jennifer would be a player. When Jennifer was a baby, Stefano propped a pillow under her and helped her do sit-ups. She held her first racket at 3. By age 12, Capriati was bulldozing girls her age and several years older. Eager for Jennifer to compete on the lucrative pro tour, Stefano pressured the Women's Tennis Council to exempt Jennifer from the rule barring girls under 14. "They made the age rule because of the burnout of just two players, [Tracy] Austin and [Andrea] Jaeger," he told World Tennis magazine. "But they don't know Jennifer. She's a very happy girl. She gets straight A's in school, and she's very healthy. She just wants to improve her tennis."

At first, all the Capriatis—her parents, younger brother Steven, now 15, and Jennifer herself—were delighted by life on the glitzy international tour. Schooled in little but tennis, Jennifer hit the circuit wide-eyed and naive. In Paris for her first French Open in 1990, she expressed astonishment that Notre Dame was a cathedral, not a football team.

In 1991, Capriati reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and became the youngest woman ever ranked in the Top 10. Already she was earning $6 million in endorsement deals alone. Criticized by tennis writer Bud Collins for pushing his daughter, Stefano said, "Look, I love my daughter more than you know. But where I come from we have a proverb: 'When the apple is ripe, eat it.' "

In 1992, Jennifer turned 16, and life on the tour was beginning to pall. Winning only one title that year, Capriati became surly and uncommunicative. Even though she came away with a gold medal al the Barcelona Olympics, she described the year as a whole as "a waste." Says Kevin O'Connor, tennis director al the Palmer School: "On the road she was surrounded by agents, manufacturers, promoters—all people who were asking something from her. She couldn't share a lot, and I think it was isolating and lonely."

Plagued by tendinitis and bone chips in her elbow, Capriati suffered a stunning first-round loss al the U.S. Open in early September—and hasn't played since. When she returned to Florida from the tour, she found it hard to fit in with old friends. "Her peer group had moved on with their lives," says O'Connor. "She had to create a group herself. I think she became fascinated with people who didn't even know who she was. It was better than being around people who wanted something from her."

Away from tennis, Capriati's rebellion began to strain family relations. At a swimming pool one day, Stefano snatched an alcoholic drink from Jennifer's hand and threw it in her face. "It was a difficult lime, with the family members yelling at each other," says a person close to the Capriatis.

In November, Capriati moved out of her parents' house in Saddlebrook and into a nearby apartment. A month later she was cited for shoplifting a $34.99 marcasite ring at a kiosk in a Tampa mall. A juvenile al the time, she explained that it was an accident—that she had simply forgotten she had the ring—and received a private reprimand in family court.

In January, Capriati announced she would lake an extended leave from the women's tour to finish high school. "She's not rebelling," Stefano Capriati insisted to The New York Times. "She's testing everybody—me, her mother, her friends. She wants to see how they react to her if she doesn't play tennis. And she's testing herself too." Said Denise Capriati: "The tennis, the money, the attention...it was like a merry-go-round that starts spinning really fast and on want to jump off, but you're so caught up in it that you can't." But Jennifer did, and she didn't stop there. At the end of March, Capriati dropped out of Saddlebrook High School and moved to an apartment in Boca Raton. Then came her second arrest.

"I think a lot of this stems from not being able to do what she really wanted while she was young," says Andrea Jaeger, 28, whose own promising tennis career was sidelined by injuries before she was 19. "But in one sense, this could be the best thing that ever happened to her. Maybe this is the wake-up call—not just to Jennifer, but to everybody." Adds Mary Carillo: "Just four years ago she had such unbridled joy and enthusiasm, in her game and in her face. She was such a great story, such a happy kid. It's painful to look back al that today."

SUSAN REED
MEG GRANT, CINDY DAMPIER and GREG AUNAPU in Miami, DON SIDER in West Palm Beach and VICKIE BANE in Denver

  • Contributors:
  • Meg Grant,
  • Cindy Dampier,
  • Greg Aunapu,
  • Don Sider,
  • Vickie Bane.