Capriati Vs. King: Double-Fault

Two willful women, Billie Jean King and Jennifer Capriati, dug in and the losers were tennis fans and the U.S. Fed Cup team.

It was an utterly unnecessary squabble, King drawing a line in the green clay in Charlotte, N.C., on the principle of team play, Capriati petulantly standing firm on her desire to practice on her own with her daddy on the court.

Tempers flared and heated words were exchanged. King, the captain, won the argument and lost the match.

King tossed the No. 2-ranked Capriati off the team, yielding the first point in the best-of-five weekend competition to Austria’s Evelyn Fauth on a walkover. When No. 75 Barbara Schwartz then upset Monica Seles and came back Sunday to beat Meghann Shaughnessy, Capriati’s replacement, the Americans were eliminated.

U.S. women own a record 17 Fed Cup titles. This time, they lost in embarrassing fashion in the first round.

The fans came down hard on King, booing her when she was introduced. That’s understandable. They paid to watch Capriati play and they felt cheated, which they surely were.

Seles and the other American players rallied around King, saying she was correct to stand up to Capriati.

“I just feel the right decision was made,” Seles said. “We’re all here as a team.”

Who’s at fault here? Call it a double-fault.

King should have yielded a bit on rules she set up a couple of years ago to stress the team concept of Fed Cup play. Weary of going through red tape and buffers to get to a player, King laid down her edict: For the few weekends a year that the team is together, coaches and agents are not welcome at practices and meetings.

“This is a week of team, OK,” King said over the weekend, clearly agitated. “If it wasn’t, it would be Monica and myself on this court, Stefano and Jennifer on this court. … Then we can just not have a team, it’s very simple.

“The team has to be together. This is the way to do it. It’s for this week, it’s not every week. When we’re together, this is the deal.”

That’s a sensible policy, but King could have been more flexible and not so quick to boot Capriati for trying to violate it. As long as Capriati was already there and prepared to play two singles matches, would it have undermined the team spirit so much if she had practiced with her own hitting partner while her father, Stefano, watched and fetched a few balls? Probably not.

“It is amazing to me that I am being penalized so severely for simply wanting to prepare as best I can for the Federation Cup and my other commitments,” Capriati said.

King could have let Capriati play, then told her after the weekend not to come back for the next round if she can’t do it alone. Now there won’t be a next round, at least until next year.

But don’t pin all the blame on Billie Jean. And don’t forget that she is the single most important woman in tennis history, perhaps sports history — a woman that every player should thank for promoting the game for more than three decades.

When Billie Jean King spoke, Capriati should have listened and nodded. Not just because King was right, but because of who she is and what she has meant to women’s tennis.

Besides all her Grand Slam championships and her celebrated victory over Bobby Riggs in their 1973 Battle of the Sexes, King started the Women’s Sports Foundation, helped get Title IX written into law, and tirelessly worked to give female athletes opportunities ever since.

The 26-year-old Capriati doesn’t have to know all that history to be aware that King is someone she should respect.

King has long been an advocate of team play in tennis, beginning with World Team Tennis, a concept that has endured, albeit with only marginal success, since King helped start it in the 1970s. It’s a tough sell to the players and the fans.

Doubles notwithstanding, pro tennis players are decidedly individualistic and far less sociable than their country club cousins on the golf course. Tennis players don’t grow up in foursomes and they don’t jump at team endeavors like WTT or Davis Cup or Fed Cup with nearly the same passion as golfers do with Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup.

Yet when tennis players do commit to the team format and play for their country, they invariably say they enjoy the experience. It’s intense and fun and it gives them a chance to get to know players they otherwise rarely speak to on the tour.

That’s the experience Capriati missed. Her comeback over the past two years after her troubled teens is a wonderful story, and she deserves all the credit for her perseverance. But she made a mistake in challenging King.

Capriati let down her teammates, denied herself a chance to have fun and, most of all, cheated the tennis fans who came out to see her play.