TIME FROZE before her moment of truth. Jennifer Capriati looked to her left and briefly locked eyes with her father, Stefano. She shuffled her feet a few times, hunched her back and awaited Martina Hingis's serve. Holding match point in the women's final of the Australian Open last Saturday, Capriati saw her life flash before her. As her opponent tossed the ball, Capriati was consumed by one thought: Is this really happening?
Yes, it was. A second later Capriati jumped on Hingis's 77-mph meatball and rifled a backhand return up the line. As the ball strafed past Hingis, an improbable transformation was complete. By winning the first Grand Slam title of her career, the 24-year-old Capriati had gone from a cautionary tale to a fairy tale. In a euphoric daze she leaped repeatedly, shook Hingis's hand, dropped her racquet and wiped her tears as she made a beeline to Stefano's perch in the players' box. What did they say to each other, given the serpentine path they'd taken to this destination? "Nothing," Stefano said, smiling. "We didn't have to say a word."
Jennifer's present finally licked her past. Like Tom Hanks's character in Cast Away—the movie she'd watched for inspiration the night before the final—she returned from a lonely exile. This, however, was no mere comeback story, no case of a sympathetic protagonist making it back to where she had belonged. On Saturday, Capriati surpassed anything she'd achieved on a tennis court and fulfilled the expectations heaped on her when she was a child. "Who would have ever thought I would have made it here after so much has happened?" she later wondered out loud. "Dreams do come true."
Capriati's saga has been chronicled and rechronicled so often that it has an almost biblical ring to it. The Cliffs Notes version: Anointed as the next Great American Tennis Star in the early 1990s, Capriati played her first pro tournament at 13. At 14 she embarked on a "youngest-ever-to" tour de force, reaching the semifinals of the French Open, cracking the Top 10 and amassing millions in endorsements. By 17, sick of being commodified—fed up with the insufferable sponsors' parties, the corporate grip-and-grins, the photo shoots—and upset by the divorce of her parents, she became a standard-bearer for tennis burnout and teenage rebellion.
She was cited for shoplifting a cheap ring at a Tampa mall in December 1993 and arrested for marijuana possession at a Coral Gables, Fla., motel five months later. Having dropped off the tour, she did a stint of court-approved drug rehab and lost interest in tennis. Then, in fits and starts, she returned to the circuit, but the player once destined for greatness went five years without winning a match at a Grand Slam. "There was so much against me, there were times when I thought, Maybe this isn't worth it," Capriati said after Saturday's match. "But once I got over the hump and enjoyed the game and stopped worrying about the other stuff, I knew I'd break through eventually."
Capriati was on the verge of breaking through a year ago. She arrived at the 2000 Australian Open in the best shape of her life and reached the semifinals, where she lost to Lindsay Davenport, the eventual champion. From there, though, a string of distractions conspired to undo her progress. She parted company with her coach, Harold Solomon, when he began to question her work ethic, and Stefano took over. A foot injury hindered her on-court movement and limited her training. She found romance with Belgian pro Xavier Malisse, a talented and well-liked player but a notorious slacker and junk-food junkie. Soon both Capriati's physique and her resolve softened, and she finished a so-so year ranked 14th. "I think she was a little bit disappointed," says her mother, Denise, who followed Jennifer's progress in Melbourne from her home in West Palm Beach, Fla. "If Jennifer feels happy about herself physically, everything falls into place. If she doesn't, she's not at her best."
During tennis's brief off-season Capriati whipped herself back into shape and "took a break," as she puts it, from Malisse. She worked out almost daily with her fitness trainer, Karen Burnett, going through a regimen of Tae Bo, cycling and running. Having arrived in Melbourne appreciably more toned than she'd been two months before, Capriati didn't have to worry about rationing her energy in heat that ranged from mild to molten. "It's one thing to hit the ball well," says Capriati, whose victory on Saturday raised her world ranking to No. 7 "It's another thing to know you can keep it up as long as the match goes on."
Long one of the tour's heaviest hitters, Capriati belted the fastest serves in the draw, save for those of the Williams sisters, and unloaded ground strokes (crosscourt forehands in particular) with murderous intent. But she tempered her power with patience and variety, and played with a competitive fire that she hasn't always shown. Trailing 5-1 in her fourth-round match against Spain's Marta Marrero, Capriati gave herself a lecture and rallied to win 7-5,6-1. In the quarterfinals against Monica Seles, Capriati was down a set and a break of serve before she made like Emeril and—bam!—kicked it up a notch. She prevailed 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. Against a sluggish Davenport in the semis, Capriati got the business end of a line call on a key point in the second set. In the past it might have unnerved her. This time, instead of arguing, she marched back to the baseline, took a deep breath and spanked an ace down the middle. After winning 6-4, 6-3, Capriati was hardly giddy about reaching the final. "I didn't get to this point just to get this point," she pointed out.
Saturday's match may have been Capriati's first Grand Slam final, but she played as if it were her 10th, hitting boldly yet judiciously and striking as many winners (20) as unforced errors. The usually imaginative Hingis responded with strategically vacant tennis, content to engage Capriati in baseline exchanges. After jumping to a 4-0 lead, Capriati never relinquished her grip, winning 6-4,6-3.
Hingis was sorely disappointed with her failure to win the trophy at a major for the eighth straight time, but her trip to the Antipodes wasn't a total loss. She took great satisfaction in beating her sworn rivals and recent Grand Slam tormentors, Serena and Venus Williams, in successive matches. In the quarters Hingis added to her scrap-book of epics with the House of Williams when she recovered from a 1-4 third-set deficit to take out Serena 6-2, 3-6, 8-6. A day later she drubbed Venus, winner of the two previous Slam tournaments, 6-1,6-1. The most comprehensive loss of Venus's career laid bare her spotty preparation, which included no tournament play since mid-October. "They're always saying, 'O.K., we went to school,' " said Hingis after her victory. "Either you go to school or play tennis. You can't do both. Tennis is a full-time commitment."