Capriati and Pierce: missing in action

Before the French Open gets into full swing, let’s take a look at two players who are missing in action: Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce.

Capriati and Pierce’s lives have been intertwined since early in their tennis careers. When Pierce’s father, Jim, was developing her as a young tennis player, he was upset that Capriati was getting more help from the USTA than Mary so he packed up and moved the family to France, his wife’s native country. Pierce was the youngest player to turn professional when she joined the tour at age fourteen in 1989. Capriati took that record away the next year when she turned professional at age 13.

There are, unfortunately, plenty of pushy and even abusive fathers in tennis and that is something else these two players share. Pierce’s father, Jim, was physically abusive; Pierce said that he used to slap her after losing a match. In 1993, he was banned from attending WTA tournaments for, among other things, shouting abusive statements at Mary’s opponents.

If Capriati is thirty years old and has three grand slams and still doesn’t know why she plays tennis, how mature could she have been at age 13?

Capriati’s father, Stefano, wasn’t physically or verbally abusive, but he was, at the very least, short sighted and opportunistic in pushing Capriati to turn professional before she was mature enough to handle it. She’d won four Junior slam titles the year before she turned professional and her father thought that there was no point waiting any longer to join the tour, but the pressure to be a cash cow for the family and a savior for American tennis took its toll on Capriati. In 1993 she left the tour to be a high school student and in 1994, she acted out as many teenagers do when they are unhappy with their family – by getting into trouble. She was arrested in a Miami hotel for posession of marijuana.

There are more than a few problems with becoming a professional athlete at too early an age. If you have an abusive parent, you are in no position to stand up to them and fight back at age fourteen. You also don’t really know who you are, you haven’t formed a very strong sense of yourself. Capriati returned to the tour in 1996 but she bristled at the incessant questions about her off-court problems. After a loss to Monica Seles in the 1999 US Open, she broke down during the post-match press conference while reading a letter in which she apologized for any pain she’d caused her family and fans then pleaded that her past be left behind.

Capriati bounced back to win three slams but she’s been off the tour since November 2004 with a shoulder injury and when I read an interview with her last Thursday in the New York Times, I wondered if she was any closer to knowing who she is and what she wants to do in life. Talking about her eighteen month absence from the tour she said, “You don’t know what’s your driving force. Is it sponsors, pressure, money, self-worth? Or is it that you really love the game so much that you can’t be away from it?”

If Capriati is thirty years old and has three grand slams and still doesn’t know why she plays tennis, how mature could she have been at age 13? Compare this with Martina Hingis who returned this year after a three year layoff from the tour. In an interview in Sports Illustrated last week she said, “I could leave tennis but it wouldn’t leave me. It’s what I do. So I came back.” It seems pretty clear and simple to her.

Pierce has suffered through injuries too. She’s been out since February with a foot injury then injured her groin practicing for Roland Garros. She missed most of 2001 and part of 2002 with a chronic back injury but recovered well enough to reach the finals of the French Open, the US Open and the year-end tournament in 2005 and end the year ranked number 5.

Pierce has chosen to manage her life by depending on her religious faith. She’s come to terms with difficulties in her life in a way that satisfies her and she’s done it at an early enough age that she can still play topflight professional tennis. She has, for instance, reconciled with her father.

Hopefully Capriati can recover from her injury and figure out what she wants to do with her life soon enough to end her career the same way it started, interwined with Pierce.