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Belgian Stars Earn Stripes

Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters beat Capriati and Davenport. The U.S. Open has no American woman in final for the first time since 1996.

September 06, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Justine Henin-Hardenne tossed the racket in the air and dropped to her knees, covered her face with her hands and remained almost locked in that position for a few seconds.

It was the pose of a champion.

The final actually will be later tonight, but what happened early this morning certainly felt like a final. What had been an ordinary women's semifinal at the U.S. Open on Friday night had turned into an extraordinary contest of will and determination by Saturday morning. Ten times, Jennifer Capriati was two points from reaching her first U.S. Open final.

Ten times denied.

She was never able to make those last two lunging steps. The second-seeded Henin-Hardenne overcame deficits of 3-5 in the second set and 2-5 in the third to defeat No. 6 Capriati, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4), in 3 hours 3 minutes. Their semifinal ended at 12:27 EDT.

Oh, and by the way, the all-Belgian women's final will be tonight, at 5 PDT. It will be the first U.S. Open women's final without an American since 1996.

The first semifinal offered a stark contrast in terms of competition and drama. Top-seeded Kim Clijsters beat No. 3 Lindsay Davenport, 6-2, 6-3, in 63 minutes, breaking Davenport's serve six times.

For Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne, it will be a rematch of their French Open final in June, which Henin-Hardenne won, 6-0, 6-4. Since then, their rivalry has grown increasingly contentious.

Henin-Hardenne was not even thinking a few hours ahead to the final in the immediate aftermath of the Capriati match. The two players pushed themselves to the limits as conditions grew chillier and windier, producing a highlight reel of shot-making -- clean winners, passing shots on the run and lobs kept in by the elements.

"So tired, you know, I just gave everything I had," Henin-Hardenne said in her on-court TV interview. "I was cramping, especially on my serve. During the point, it was OK, but serving, it was very hard."

Capriati, who gave Henin-Hardenne only a cursory handshake, displayed a wry sense of humor in the interview room.

"I won, didn't I?" she said, smiling. "... It hurts. It's very disappointing. But what can I do? It's just the way it went."

The disappointment hit her hard as she left the court. She said she felt like her "heart was being ripped out," but she recovered her sense of self not long afterward. Capriati was asked if she lost the match or Henin-Hardenne won it.

"It's hard to say. You have to give her credit, the way she was feeling just to stay out there and try to win," said Capriati, who grew curiously tentative with her shots when she crept closer to the finish line. "But I feel I definitely had the match in my hands and it was my match to win. Yeah, I guess I beat myself."

For Henin-Hardenne, it was this year's Australian Open all over again, minus the searing heat. In Melbourne, Henin-Hardenne cramped so badly against Davenport in the fourth round that she needed medical attention but still won in three sets, taking the third, 9-7.

She was not able to come into the interview room after beating Capriati because of cramping in her left leg due to dehydration. But she spoke to a couple of reporters in the medical training room while receiving intravenous fluids.

In retrospect, Henin-Hardenne said, she made an error by not calling the trainer. Clijsters had criticized her for doing so in their final last month in San Diego, and it apparently hit home with Henin-Hardenne.

"Probably, yeah, because a lot of people talked about me very badly in the last few weeks and I did a big mistake because I needed the trainer," she said. "So I think it's the last time I'm doing this kind of mistake."

Henin-Hardenne said she was improving with the IV but had no idea what condition she would be in for the final.

"It's hard right now to tell you how I'm feeling, really. I will see tomorrow. I need some hours to recover," she said. "It's going to be too short for sure. I'll go on the court if I'm able to compete and if I'm able to fight. I think I'll be able to do it."

For Capriati, it was the 1991 U.S. Open again. That, too, was a devastating semifinal, which she lost to Monica Seles in a third-set tiebreaker after serving for the match twice and coming within two points of winning.

This time, her backhand let her down in the tiebreaker. Henin-Hardenne won it when Capriati netted a backhand volley.

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