People watch sports because of the excitement, but also because athletic competition provides ongoing metaphors for our own lives. Those of us who enjoy individual sports are perhaps seeking more personal metaphors that are not so much about belonging and cooperation, but about transcending particular demons and believing in the self.
One of the most powerful of these metaphors is the comeback, and of the notable comebacks on the women's tour, one of the most dramatic was that of Jennifer Capriati. A 13-year-old phenom from New York City, Capriati made everyone take notice when she reached the final of a tour tournament. At age 14, she entered the top 10, and two years later, she won a gold medal at the Olympic Games.
Capriati, who was--after all--a teenage girl with problems, had to take a break from tennis when her personal problems caught up with her. She then became another build-her-up-and-tear-her-down headline, as she struggled with issues that got her on the wrong side of the law. But Jennifer Capriati came back, and when she did, she gave fans what they had expected long before. She won the Australian Open and the French Open in 2001, and she won the Australian again the next year.
Capriati was exciting to watch. She hit very powerful groundstrokes, and she had a kind of fight in her that led her to victories that didn't appear to be hers for the taking. She had a mouth on her, too, and a swagger. She was quick to say whatever came to her mind without any editing, and she takes a particular place in WTA history for doing things like yelling "Turn that baby off!" and asking that "Bombs Over Baghdad" be played when she walked onto the court.
There will, in short, never be another Jennifer Capriati. Unfortunately, injury caused her to stop playing, or who knows how much more she would have achieved?
Over the weekend, professional tennis's Bad Girl was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She was introduced by her friend, Monica Seles, who is intimately acquainted with the concept of the comeback. Seles's introduction was touching and affectionate. Indeed, what seemed like a third of Capriati's speech was about Seles, and the respect that the two players have always had for each other. Capriati's acceptance speech was so raw, it was sometimes painful to hear. "I have spent my life either being on a tennis court or missing a tennis court," she said. And--about tennis: "It has given me great joy on and off the court, as well as a lot of pain on and off the court."
A tearful Capriati talked about her sadness at not being able to leave the game on her own terms, and about what she has learned in her various struggles. Only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by what was obviously such an honest, vulnerably presented, speech. The only thing that couuld have possibly followed it, in fact, was the induction of Guga Kuerten with an introduction by his compelling mother. And that is exactly what happened.
"I don't need to be on a tennis court to remember who I am," Capriati told those in attendance. That was good to hear.
Here are some excerpts from Capriati's speech. Fans who have access to Tennis Channel may be able to watch the entire ceremony in a re-broadcast.