The last time Jennifer Capriati was on Arthur Ashe stadium court was eight year ago this weekend, when the then-28-year-old left her heart on it: scrambling, running, hitting and diving for balls in a dramatic third-set tiebreak loss to Elena Dementieva in the semifinals.
Eight years later, now retired and recently inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the New York native returns to the city that she entertained for over a decade, but this time as a spectator. Sunday for the women’s final, Capriati will perform the coin toss for Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams prior to their match.
“I always love coming back to the Open and any reason to come back to New York City,” Capriati said Friday at the Hall’s Legend Ball in Manhattan. “I love New York. I love the people and the energy and the reception and the warm welcome I get when I come back.”
Capriati’s return comes at a time when two of the most popular players from her generation, Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters, are joining her in the retirement category, following respective exits from this year’s US Open.
“Andy was such a hard worker in the game. He represented American tennis for years and for what he had, he maximized his potential as much as he could and achieved great accomplishments, including winning the US Open,” Capriati said. “He should be very proud of his career. Bowing out at the right time—on his terms.”
Clijsters, seven years the 36-year-old Capriati’s junior, is also bowing out on her terms. The two women battled in the 2001 French Open final in a match Capriati squeaked out, 1-6, 6-4, 12-10.
“[That match] went down as one of the greatest matches in women’s tennis history and it’s one of my greatest matches,” Capriati remembered. “She was always so tough to play. We always played at such a high level and that’s what Kim always did. She was such a fighter.”
But Capriati said she understood the hard decision to walk away from the game, something she struggled—and still struggles—with.
“ I can feel for her. I went through it, I’m still going through it,” she said. “You always miss [the game]. It’s normal to [visit tournaments] and miss it.”
The three-time Slam champ’s longing for the game is compounded by the fact that she didn’t get a farewell tour like Clijsters, nor a this-is-it run like Roddick. After losing to Vera Zvonareva in a small indoor tournament in Philadelphia following the US Open in 2004, Capriati was sidelined by a shoulder injury that would never allow her to take to the pro tennis tour again.
“I was not able to leave the game on my terms,” she said in her Hall of Fame speech earlier this summer. “I was not able to thank everyone who had such a positive impact on my life.”
But Capriati has been able to make up for such a quick exit a bit this week in New York, attending the tennis earlier this week (she watched some of Andy’s farewell against Juan Martin Del Potro), as well as at the Legends Ball. She was again in attendance for the Andy Murray-Tomas Berdych match Saturday, and will make another appearance at Flushing Meadows Sunday.
“I’ve spent my life either being on a tennis court, or missing a tennis court.”
“It’s exciting to be here,” she said Friday. “I always felt like [the fans] were at my side during those thrilling moments in New York. It’s fun to be back.”
Capriati has been largely absent from the tennis world’s de facto alumni practices: she doesn’t do any commentating, she’s not a tennis coach, nor has made many public appearances prior to this summer. She did, however, make her debut on Twitter as recently as June.
“The fans are the best part of Twitter,” she told USOpen.org. “I get to have my own say, my own voice that fans get to hear directly. There’s no filter. I love it. When I need a little motivation or a little pick-me-up, I just see what the fans write and it’s nothing but love. So, it’s pretty cool.”
It’s also pretty cool to have Capriati, a four-time semifinalist here, back in New York. Her epic battles with Monica Seles (1991) and Justin Henin-Hardenne (2003) are easy rain-delay options, though she never won a title in the city where she was born.
Moving forward, Capriati has plans to get more involved with tennis, even if that doesn’t mean a comeback to the pros.
“I’ll be doing some things to give back to the game. I have a lot to give back,” she said. “We’ll see what kind of role I can play in tennis and in American tennis, especially.”
In Newport, she summed up what tennis has stood for in her life after years of reflecting on an early exit, a reflection much like the way she was last seen in New York, fighting her heart out against Dementieva. “I don’t need to be on a tennis court to be part of this game. I don’t need to be on a tennis court to remember who I am. Tennis will forever be in my heart.”