By Alex Tresniowski
February 12, 2001 12:00 PM

This, at last, was her crowning moment, the time to finally hoist her long-deferred prize—a heaping forkful of seafood pasta. “I’m going to eat whatever I want tonight, and I’m going to enjoy this soooo much!” said Jennifer Capriati as she dug into dinner with her father, Stefano, at Melbourne’s Caffé e Cucina just hours after her improbable singles victory at the Australian Open on Jan. 27. “It can’t get much better than this.”

Who can fault Capriati for a little high-calorie splurging to go with her delicious first-ever Grand Slam win? Eleven years after she turned pro and was hailed as the next Chris Evert, Capriati, now 24, executed a surprising, nearly flawless 6-4, 6-3 win over top-seeded Martina Hingis—sweet redemption for a roller-coaster career that saw her rise to Tiger Woods-like prominence at 13, only to burn out, quit playing tennis and get arrested on drug charges. “She goes from a mug shot to a champion,” marvels longtime NBC tennis analyst Bud Collins. “This was unlikely and unexpected, and here it happened. The kid has found herself a second life, and it’s wonderful.”

Thanks to a brutal regimen of strength and endurance training, the formerly chunky Capriati also has a brand new body, so ripped and muscled it made Hingis look positively waifish. But Capriati’s rebirth as a tennis player owes more to her new maturity and confidence—traits sorely missing from her first go-round. “You can see that she’s really grown, spiritually and internally,” says her friend, retired tennis player Carling Bassett-Seguso, 33, once a teen prodigy herself. “Jennifer is at a place she wasn’t at five years ago.” For one thing, Capriati no longer has to deal with the domestic strife that led to her parents’ 1995 divorce and may have precipitated her downward spiral, now that her father, Stefano, and mother, Denise, are friendly again. Capriati has also reconstructed her tricky relationship with her father; as her gruff, hard-driving coach, he was, many believe, at the root of her problems. “We learn to be parents almost as on-the-job training; they don’t give us manuals,” says Stefano, 65, who has admitted to putting too much pressure on his daughter and is now far less demanding. Right after her win at Melbourne Park, Capriati rushed over to the stands and reached up for her father. “That big smile,” he says proudly, “was something else.”

An endearingly giggly eighth-grader when she reached the finals of her first pro tournament in 1990, Capriati was the second youngest female ever to play professionally and drew media hordes at every stop. She held up well enough under the scrutiny to win four titles, an Olympic gold medal in 1992 and several million dollars in endorsement deals with Rolex, Prince and Oil of Olay. “She was the girl-next-door with a great smile who could sweep the world off its feet,” says Paul McNamee, her coach in 1993.”But Jennifer couldn’t live that fairy tale, so she exited.”

It was not a graceful exit. The powerful ground strokes that took her to sixth in the world rankings by 1991 gave way to a series of first-round exits and tearful breakdowns at press conferences. In 1993 police stopped a 17-year-old Capriati for allegedly shoplifting a $34.99 ring from a kiosk at a Tampa mall. That case was dismissed, but the next year she was arrested in a Coral Gables hotel room and charged with possessing marijuana. Capriati spent 23 days in a Miami Beach rehab center. Sullen and out of shape, she essentially dropped out of the pro circuit for two years, playing in only one tournament in 1994 and 1995.

Her fall from tennis star to tabloid fodder coincided with the end of her parents’ marriage—a breakup caused in part by disagreements between Stefano and his more lenient wife, Denise, over how hard to push their daughter. “It was a difficult time, with the family members yelling at each other,” says someone close to the Capriatis. “You saw the sweetest girl you know change in a short time.” By early 2000, though, the wounds had healed enough to allow Stefano and Denise to be friends again, making it easier for Capriati to reconnect with both her parents. “He’s changed, I’ve changed, and it’s good now,” says Denise, 50, who lives four hours away from her daughter in Florida and sees her several times a year. “Jennifer and I are a lot closer now,” she adds. “I’m her mom and her friend.”

Capriati worked out a similar arrangement with her father in 1999, the year her comeback began in earnest. She replaced him as her coach with former pro star Harold Solomon, who rebuilt her confidence as well as her game. Capriati’s world ranking rose from 101st in 1998 to 23rd in 1999, and after she played deep into two Grand Slam events Tennis magazine named her 1999’s Comeback Player of the Year. Then, last spring, Capriati brought Stefano back as her coach. “She decided her dad knew everything about her, and she really trusted him,” says Denise. “They’re getting along great now. It seems to be working.”

So is Capriati’s decision to shed the extra weight that had, over the years, become part of her image. “Jennifer just loves sweating buckets,” says trainer Karen Burnett, who worked with Capriati for six weeks straight before the Australian Open. “When it’s something she wants, she’s going to do it 100 percent.” Crisp and seemingly tireless, Capriati beat defending champ Lindsay Davenport, four-time winner Monica Seles and a sluggish Hingis to finally win her first Grand Slam title, reclaiming her status as a fan favorite along the way. “People who don’t even know me were so supportive,” says Capriati. “I felt the support growing even in the first round, and it helped me realize that, ‘Yes, I can win this, I can go all the way.’ And I did.”

Moments after the victory Stefano used his cell phone to call son Steven, 21, a top tennis player at the University of Arizona. He then had an official pass the phone to Jennifer, who chatted with her brother. Later Capriati got through to her mother in Florida. “She just said, ‘Do you believe it?’ ” says Denise, who watched the match on TV with Jennifer’s shih tzu Bianca. “I told her Bianca’s ears stood up when I screamed at the end.”

Bianca better get used to the racket: Capriati’s world ranking just rose to No. 7, her first foray into the Top 10 since 1993. She also recently cooled it with her boyfriend, Belgian tennis pro Xavier Malisse, 20. “I think they both decided they want to concentrate on their careers right now,” says Denise. To that end, Capriati, who lives in a 4,380-sq.-ft. home in Saddlebrook, an exclusive community in Wesley Chapel, Fla., will likely lay off the seafood pasta as she prepares for future tournaments. “She sorted everything out herself, and now she’s a Grand Slam winner,” says McNamee. “She 2 achieved her own dream and in her own way.”

Alex Tresniowski

Dennis Passa in Melbourne