In late 1988, when Jennifer Capriati was 13 and about to turn pro, she played in an exhibition event in Haverford, Pa. Some players worried she was too young to start a career and would be off the tour within a few years; others were certain she was too talented not to become a star.
It turns out both predictions were on the mark.
Capriati's remarkable return from career crisis to the top of tennis in 2001, with championships at the Australian and French Opens and a brief turn at No. 1, earned her The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award on Thursday.
''I'm no longer going to doubt myself in anything,'' Capriati said after winning her first major title this year. ''If I can come home with a Grand Slam, now I know anything is possible.''
She received 37 first-place votes and 157 points from sports writers and broadcasters to top Venus Williams, also the runner-up in 2000. Williams had 26 first-place votes and 120 points, Annika Sorenstam was third with 94 points, while Stacy Dragila and Lisa Leslie completed the top five.
Williams stopped Capriati's streak at the majors by winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open for the second straight year. Sorenstam won eight times on the LPGA Tour, the most in 22 years, and became the first woman to shoot 59 in competition.
Points were awarded on a 3-2-1 basis, and eight women received at least one first-place vote.
Capriati's resurgence was stunning, coming years after she first flashed the power game that would carry her back to the top. She won three titles and reached four other finals, posting a 56-14 match record, including a year-best 24-2 in Grand Slam tourneys.
''I am proud to be able to come back from everything that's happened in my life, and just to enjoy tennis and play this well,'' Capriati said in October, when she moved up to No. 1 in the WTA rankings. ''I think it shows everybody that it's never too late to realize your talent, or your dream.''
At 14, just out of eighth grade, Capriati reached the semifinals of the first Grand Slam tournament she played -- the 1990 French Open. Another 11 years would pass before she would take the next step, reaching a major final.
Drug and other problems derailed her progress, and Capriati dropped off the tour after the 1993 U.S. Open. She didn't play a competitive match for 2 1/2 years, and there was little reason to believe her game would be anything special when she came back in April 1996. Two years later, her ranking dipped to No. 267.
She showed flashes of her old form last year, but it wasn't until 2001 that Capriati completed the comeback.
Seeded 12th at the Australian Open, she defeated past champions Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis en route to the title and her first Top 10 ranking in seven years.
''I don't know what it is, but in this tournament, from the beginning, it's like all of a sudden this wave of confidence came over me,'' Capriati said before her straight-set victory over Hingis in the final. ''I just really felt good about my game and about everything. I think it just has really shown.''
In the best shape of her career, Capriati cruised through two grueling weeks on clay at the French Open to become the first American women's champion in Paris since Chris Evert in 1986. Capriati beat Serena Williams and Hingis to reach the final, where she edged emerging Belgian star Kim Clijsters 1-6, 6-4, 12-10, the longest last set in a French Open women's title match.
While Capriati won just one other event this year -- at Charleston, S.C. -- she was strong at the other Grand Slam tournaments, reaching the semis at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
That was enough to push her to No. 1 in the WTA rankings in October; she finished the year at No. 2, behind Davenport.
''I look forward to playing all the top players because it's just a real test,'' Capriati said. ''That's what we live for, the players, just to get in that moment and really have a challenge and just see if we can live up to it.''
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