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Jennifer Capriati: A cautionary tale

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Mug shot of Jennifer Capriati.

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, a parent’s goal is not just that his or her child go pro. It’s that the child’s accomplishment — whether it’s sports or something else that can draw a high profile (I’m looking at you, Sunderland family) — is done at the youngest possible age.

As we know from the tragedy’s of child sitcom stars, this early success often comes at a severe personal price. And Jennifer Capriati — whose  “accidental” overdose of prescription medication was first reported June 27 by TMZ — is still paying it.

Jennifer Capriati made waves in 1990 when she became a 13-year-old tennis pro, young even by the standards of women’s tennis, where then — as now — pushy-to-the-point-of-abusive parents are often key to a player’s development. (In Jennifer’s case, Stefano Capriati was the horror dad.)

Alas,  Capriati, after an initial wave of success that included an Olympic gold medal in 1992, by 17 had been busted for shoplifting and marijuana possession as she became the tragic early sports burnout to top all tragic early burnouts. Her mugshot (at left) was a cautionary tale all by itself. Was she rebelling against tennis? Her father? At that point, that Capriati would live was more of a concern than whether she played tennis. (The U.S. Tennis Association even passed a “Capriati rule” in 1994 so no more 13-year-olds could play and follow do Capriati’s dark path.)

But Capriati came back, cleaning herself up and winning two Grand Slams in 2001 — the Australian and the French. Was it a love of tennis that propelled her? Or was it that her identity didn’t allow her to do anything else? A few years later, a shoulder injury forced Capriati to retire — and face problems with depression and suicidal thoughts. This is from a 2007 New York Daily News profile of Capriati:

“When I stopped playing, that’s when all this came crumbling down,” Capriati says. “If I don’t have (tennis), who am I? What am I? I was just alive because of this. I’ve had to ask, ‘Well, who is Jennifer? What if this is gone now?’ I can’t live off of this the rest of my life.” …

“When someone that young has such an incredible level of talent and promise, and the whole world identifies them with it, it can short-circuit the natural process of identity formation,” says Dr. Fred Wertz, chairman of Fordham’s psychology department. The result is that you see yourself in one way, doing one thing. Other options don’t even compute.

Despite the Capriati family’s insistence that her prescription drug overdose was accidental, many were freely speculating, based on Capriati’s past, that maybe it wasn’t so accidental.

I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, so I don’t know how many of Capriati’s problems were due to her tennis-stunted upbringing, and how many are due to clinical depression that might have manifested itself even if she had a “normal” childhood and had grown up to become an accountant.

Every athlete, particularly an elite athlete, struggles with what to do after the fame and the games are gone. But it’s particularly sad to see someone who struggled so much to keep from burning out at 17, and now looks to be in serious crisis at the mere age of 34.

The lesson for parents is not necessarily in what happens if your child is an early pro achiever. Most of us will never know that. However, there is a lesson is what happens if your child specializes early, and mentally or physically burns out by, say, high school. How will you handle that? How will your child handle that? Do you and your child have enough perspective on sports to be prepared for the day a knee injury or mental struggles means a whole way of life has come to an end?

Glenn Lines: Australian for “Stefano Capriati”

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2853177069_e0d5c22d64_m1Amazing how that joke has carried on long after that Foster’s ad campaign stopped. It did stop, right?

According to famed tennis coach Rick Macci, we should know in about five years how good a tennis player Mia Lines of Wartirna, Australia can be. After all, by then she’ll be all of NINE FUCKING YEARS OLD!!!!! (Um, emphasis mine.)

From the Telegraph of London (hat tip: Parent Dish):

Mia Lines picked up a racket at the age of only one and is now gaining from the enormous experience of renowned tennis coach Rick Macci at his [Florida] academy.

Macci has coached a series of Grand Slam winners but said he has never seen a more impressive player at the age of four than Mia, who is from Australia.

“I have seen hundreds of kids come through my school in the 25 years I have been doing this and I have never seen a four year old with such god-given talent,” he said.

Stunned by the precision of Mia’s ability to read the court and also because she can hit the ball from baseline to baseline, Rick is cautiously guarded about her potential due to her age.

“It is difficult to compare Mia to players I have coached like Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova,” the 54-year-old said. “Mia’s technique is incredible and what she is doing is bringing foot-work you can’t teach to the table.

“What I would say is ask me if she can go all the way in five years and I will be able to tell you then.

“In the meantime my opinion is that she can not be any better than she is at this age.”

OK, before we get to Glenn Lines, the budding Svengali behind his daughter, let’s analyze the implications what Rick Macci, he of his beloved Maccisms that are basically ripoffs of every past coach and self-help book you’ve ever heard of, just said:

— He’s seen a lot of four-year-olds play, enough to RANK them.

— He’s not quite douchebagish enough to compare little Mia already with Serena Williams, but he thinks he can do so when she’s NINE FUCKING YEARS OLD!!!!!

maccismsblockbottomrickAnother Maccism: “If you fail to pay me buckets of dough for the privilege, you haven’t really ruined your kid’s childhood.”

OK, but now onto the man who is really going to be responsible for his daughter’s future drug habit/shoplifting spree: Glenn Lines.

Like the most notorious of tennis dads — and that’s a long and distinguished lot — Lines decided sometime between his girl’s conception and birth that she would be a tennis player, and started training her according. Stefano Capriati had Jennifer doing baby sit-ups; Glenn Lines had Mia doing hand-eye coordination drills.

Also like most tennis dads, Lines is deluded that his daughter LOVES this, and needs this accelerated training because she LOVES it so much. Perhaps that is true now, because a four-year-old is more apt to be all about pleasing dad. And I certainly would never begrudge a child gifted at anything the opportunity for advanced work. But it would be one thing if Mia had, without prompting, picked up a tennis racket at one and started hitting balls. But instead it’s Glenn Lines shoving a racket in her hands and making her hit balls.

Lines told the Telegraph that he’s such a big tennis fan, he knew all about Macci (did he know about how annoying his web site is? I mean, beyond the stupid Maccisms, every time you run the mouse over a ball it makes a racket — literally the sound of a racket swinging and hitting a ball). Apparently he’s not enough of a tennis fan to remember how careers of such youngsters as Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger got waylaid by injury, or how Jennifer Capriati got waylaid by teenage rebellion.

Because Mia probably doesn’t know how to read, I’ll address this message to Glenn Lines: you think you’re doing well for your daughter, but you’re not. Back off for a while and see if she stays interested in tennis. You might not be able to retired on her winnings at 15, but you’ll have a well-adjusted daughter who loves you. And you won’t have this: