Class of 2012
World No. 1 (2001)
Grand Slam Results
3-time major champion
Overall: 496- 226
Gold Medal in Women’s Singles at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games
Member of the U.S. Federation Cup Team 1990-1991,1996, 2000, 2002
Member of the U.S. Championship Federation Team 1990, 2000
Overall Record: 11-4
Singles Record: 10-3
Doubles Record: 1-1
“And She’s Only 13!”
That was the headline Sports Illustrated ran on its March 19, 1990 cover to chronicle Jennifer Capriati’s professional debut, one that saw her reach the finals of the Virginia Slims Tournament in Boca Raton, Florida on March 5th.
No. 3 world ranked Gabriela Sabatini defeated Capriati, 6-4, 7-5, but those details were lost in in the excitement that precocious tennis prodigy Capriati was 13 years, 11 months old, and had just become the youngest player in history to reach a tour final. The prospect of facing this 5-foot-7 power hitter who crushed her flat forehand and two-handed backhand with the precision of a veteran for the next 20 years must have unsettled the women’s tour. Capriati hit the ball with velocity and depth and played like she was much older. The thought process among opponents must have been something like this: If she can defeat established professional players now, not even two years into her teenage years, what does the future hold? Less than a month later, Capriati advanced to the Virginia Slims championships at Hilton Head, losing to Martina Navratilova, 6-2, 6-4.
Capriati’s career began when she was a 5-year-old student of Chris Evert’s father, Jim Evert. From 1990 to 1993 it proceeded as advertised – stunning and successful and promising. She produced an impressive assortment of “youngest ever” firsts and scintillating results for a player so young on the professional stage. Her career dipped from 1994 to 1996 as she left the tour in 1994 to overcome burnout, deal with bone chips in her right elbow, finish high school, and handle personal issues. She returned cautiously in 1996 and over the next three years her career took a remarkable and positive leap forward, a huge reversal over the next six years. She won the first of her three major singles titles during this revival, leading both TENNIS Magazine and ESPN to bestow her with Comeback Athlete of the Year Awards in 1996 and 2002 respectively.
Women’s Tennis Association rules required girls wait until the month of their 14th birthday before entering a professional tournament. While in a holding pattern, Capriati won the U.S. Hard and Clay Court 18-and-under singles titles in 1989, the French and US Open junior singles title in 1989, the US Open and Wimbledon junior doubles titles (along with Meredith McGrath) in 1989, and the Easter Bowl 16-and-under singles title in 1989. That year, at age 13, she was named to the U.S. Wightman Cup Team, another one of her many “youngest ever distinctions.” She defeated British star Claire Wood, 6-0, 6-0, proclaiming at the time, “I am not scared of anybody. I am wondering now if they’re starting to be scared of me.”
Even before Capriati set foot in a professional event, she had a multi-million dollar clothing contract with Diadora and a one-million dollar endorsement deal with Prince racquets. It was a slick marketing maneuver because Capriati became the youngest ever player to reach the semifinals of a major tournament at the 1990 French Open (14 years, two months) and at Wimbledon in 1991 (15 years, three months), the youngest ever seed at Wimbledon in 1990 (No. 12 seed), the youngest player to earn a top 10 ranking (No. 8 at 14 years, 235 days in 1990), and the youngest player to qualify for the WTA season ending championships (1990, losing to Steffi Graf, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 at Madison Square Garden in New York City).
Youth was served literally and figuratively in 1990 when Capriati became the youngest semifinalist at the French Open, defeating No. 7 seed Mary Joe Fernandez, 6-2, 6-4, for the right to face No. 2 seed Monica Seles, the eventual champion. At Wimbledon as the No. 12 seed, she advanced three rounds before being knocked off by Graf, 6-2, 6-4. In an eagerly anticipated appearance at the US Open, Capriati advanced to the fourth round, once again thwarted by Graf, 6-1, 6-2. She won the first of 14 WTA Tour Championships (a finalist in 17 others) on October 22, 1990, when she defeated Zina Garrison in Puerto Rico, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, and finished the year ranked eighth in the world, 17 places higher than her WTA debut ranking at No. 25. In was a dizzying first year as a pro, also leading the U.S. to a Fed Cup Championship over the Soviet Union, the first of two Fed Cup titles (1990, 2000) on her resume.
In the next two years, Capriati became the youngest semifinalist in history at Wimbledon in 1991, advancing as the No. 9 seed in a 6-4, 6-4 loss to No. 2 Sabatini. As the No. 7 seed, she made a concerted run toward a 1991 US Open Championship, losing to No. 2 Monica Seles in a classic semifinal match, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. “I played 12 years and I can remember watching this match shaking my head … I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” said Pam Shriver. “This was really the beginning of the whole power era in women’s tennis.” Capriati closed out the year ranked No. 6 in the world. Her 16th birthday was still a year away, and when it arrived, she had become the youngest player in history to surpass the million-dollar mark in career prize money.
“She was fun to watch because she was always happy and giggly and just killing everybody from the start,” said Mary Joe Fernandez.
In 1992, Capriati knocked off No. 2 seed Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario and No. 1 seed Graf, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, to win the Olympic Gold Medal at the Barcelona Games. It was a crowning achievement for Capriati and she followed in 1993 by advancing to the quarterfinals at the Australian, French, and Wimbledon.
Capriati’s hiatus lasted three years, but it took six for her to regain the form that contributed to her rapid rise – power tennis, especially on her forehand that she hit early, fitness, and a competitive desire that matched her talents. She didn’t have sensational results in 1996, but TENNIS Magazine and the WTA named her the Comeback Player of the Year. It wasn’t until 1999 that Capriati became a force again, advancing to the fourth round at the French and US Open. She was a factor at the Australian in 2000 (reaching the semifinals), but the comeback came to full fruition in 2001, when Capriati become the only female on tour to reach at least the semifinals of all four majors.
At the 2001 Australian Open, Capriati was seeded No. 12, and stunned the field by defeating Seles in the quarterfinals and Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals to reach the final against No. 1 seed Martina Hingis. She played a perfect match, winning 6-4, 6-3, to become the lowest seed ever to win the championship, a record that remains today. At the French, she defeated Serena Williams in the quarterfinals (6-2, 5-7, 6-2) and Hingis easily in the semifinals (6-4, 6-3) to reach a second consecutive major final. In a gritty, hard-fought championship against Belgium’s Kim Clijsters, Capriati prevailed, 1-6, 6-4, 12-10. She had become the first American woman to win the French since Chris Evert in 1986, and told the media afterwards, “I never thought I’d be standing here 11 years later, after playing my first time here when I was 14 years old. Really, I am just waiting to wake up from this dream.”
Capriati’s 2002 title at the Australian was her most impressive of the three. Facing sweltering Melbourne heat and an opponent in Hingis bent on not losing another major final to her new rival, Capriati forged one of the greatest comebacks in tennis history, recovering from a 6-4, 4-0 deficit and four match points to stun Hingis for the title, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2.
She earned the World No. 1 ranking in October 2001, a slot she held for 18 weeks. She had solid 2003 and 2004 seasons, advancing to the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2004 and the US Open in 2003 and 2004.
Capriati ended her remarkable career at the end of the 2004 season, compiling a 430-176 career record with 14 career singles titles and one doubles title. In 2005, TENNIS Magazine ranked her No. 36 in its list of the 40 Greatest Players in the magazine’s 40-year history.
Australian Open: W 2001, 2002
French Open: W 2001
Wimbledon: SF 1991, 2001
US Open: SF 1991, 2001, 2003, 2004
Wimbledon: QF 1992