She had shed everything that Sunday morning, all the burdens and adulation that the tennis world throws at its best. As she sat at a table at a Denny's restaurant in Miami on May 15, there were no sponsors tugging her to meet some corporate geek, no panting reporters asking one more dumb question, no thousand faces shouting her name. Jennifer Capriati was where she wanted to be. The guy she liked, Mark Black, a 19-year-old high school dropout, sat across from her. A friend of hers, a 16-year-old girl named Lucy, was there too. Capriati's companions were part of an ever-shifting group of Coral Gables grunge-punks, all a worry to their parents, staying out until all hours and getting high. Capriati fit right in.
Then this happened: Black asked Capriati how she could afford to bankroll the motel room they had shared with other teenagers the night before and the party that went on there until dawn. Black and Capriati had known each other two days, and he never had a clue. "I won the lottery," she grinned. Then Lucy blurted, "She's Jennifer Capriati." And Black yelled, "Omigod! You're famous!"
It was the wrong thing to say. Capriati's smile vanished; she slapped Black's arm as if he had uttered an insult. Lucy mumbled, "She hates that."
If only Capriati were what she wants most to be—just another 18-year-old, one more faceless kid slouching toward adulthood—the world would have taken scant notice of what happened at the Gables Inn that weekend. But here she was, a tennis star once dubbed the next Chris Evert, sitting for the moment in a Denny's but otherwise holed up in a motel hard by Miami's U.S. 1, throwing a 36-hour-long party. The party would end with Capriati's arrest the day after the Denny's visit on a misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana and the arrest of two others, 19-year-old Tom Wineland for possession of crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia, and 17-year-old Timineet Branagan for possession of heroin. This was a tennis star with talent that, the experts once said, only time could hold back. Now all that promise had gone to pieces.
Lost weekend? The mug shot snapped on the morning of May 16 only hinted at how lost Capriati was: clad in the same shirt she'd worn for days, face slack, silver ring in her right nostril, a wisp of hair crossing her face like a scythe. Case No. 94-9816. A year earlier Capriati was preparing for the French Open. Now she was out of tennis, and her sponsors were backing away. Her arrest for possession of marijuana was bad enough. In addition, she was accused by two of her fellow revelers, Wineland and 18-year-old Nathan Wilson, of having used crack and heroin. Her lawyers declined comment on these allegations, but at week's end Capriati entered a drug rehabilitation facility for the second time this year.
Capriati's career, which has earned her some $20 million since she turned pro in 1990, is a shambles. And the strange thing is, she may just like it that way. Since losing in the first round of last year's U.S. Open, Capriati has made every effort to distance herself from anything that smelled of the pro circuit, even avoiding contact with other players. In March, Capriati agreed to serve as an alternate on the U.S. team that will play in the Federation Cup this summer, but team captain Marty Riessen doubts that she had any intention of playing. "She just got really tired of tennis," Riessen says. "Not just indifferent—she came to despise it."
Some would call Capriati's descent the all but inevitable outcome of an extremely public adolescence. An SI cover subject at 13 after she reached the final of her first tournament as a professional in 1990, a semifinalist at the French Open at 14, Capriati, with her clean-cut athleticism and devastating ground strokes, was anointed America's next tennis sweetheart. But by early 1992 the youthful exuberance she brought to the game had faded. She won the gold medal that year at the Barcelona Olympics, but her tennis fame weighed on her. Two months ago Greg Riehle, director of the Saddlebrook Academy, the Tampa-area private school near her parents' home that Capriati formerly attended, said, "Jennifer doesn't want to be a role model. She's adopted Charles Barkley's philosophy."
And then some. From December, when she received a reprimand after allegedly shoplifting a $15 ring at a Tampa mall, until last month, Capriati moved from apartment to apartment in the Tampa area, gained weight, played little tennis and partied so excessively that one official at Saddlebrook considered asking her to take a drug test. SI has been told that during this period Capriati underwent treatment for substance abuse at The Manors, a $348-a-day facility in Tarpon Springs, near Tampa. Just before her 18th birthday, on March 29, Capriati was back living in her parents' house. The Light n' Lively Doubles Championship, a women's tournament, was played at Saddlebrook the week of March 21, but Capriati wanted nothing to do with the players who came to town. Pam Shriver and Tracy Austin left a message asking Capriati to dinner. They never heard back. At about the same time Steffi Graf called and invited Capriati to hit balls with her in Boca Raton, Fla., where Graf has a home. Capriati declined.
"I knew something had to give," says one of Capriati's former coaches, Tommy Thompson, of his pupil's decision to isolate herself from tennis. Thompson, who has known Capriati for six years, was in charge of her early development and directed her first year on the tour. He describes how many around Capriati "looked at her only as a player. It was her only identity." When Capriati's career stalled, Thompson was disgusted to see her network of support dissolve. "Everybody sure wanted to take credit when things were going well," he says. "When she had problems, people scattered. And I say we: coaches, parents, management groups. When I met her she was the easiest, happiest kid I've ever known. She was carefree. After being on the tour for three years I could see a change."
Thompson wasn't the only one. The same week that Shriver and Austin called, Capriati's mother, Denise, hosted a 23rd-birthday party for Rennae Stubbs, a doubles player and family friend. Capriati wouldn't leave her room. Stubbs says that players kept going to Capriati's room to visit her, but eventually Capriati left the house while the party was still going on. No one was prepared for her appearance: She was overweight and sullen, with a ring through her nose. "It was kind of a shock," Stubbs says. "She had gone from princess to this grunge kid."