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The U.S. Open

Unmatchable match

Henin-Hardenne rallies to outlast Capriati in third-set tiebreaker

Posted: Saturday September 6, 2003 2:00AM; Updated: Saturday September 6, 2003 3:28AM

  Justine Henin-Hardenne
Henin-Hardenne had never advanced past the fourth round at the U.S. Open.

NEW YORK (AP) -- NEW YORK (AP) -- Justine Henin-Hardenne could hardly stand by the end, bending over to stretch her cramping left leg between points.

Jennifer Capriati propped a foot up on her chair at the last changeover, trying to stay fresh and make sure not to let the match keep slipping away.

They played past midnight in a thrill-a-minute match of "Can you top this?" filled with brilliant shotmaking and a tournament's worth of theatrics.

In the end, Henin-Hardenne emerged with the victory, reaching the U.S. Open final for the first time by outlasting Capriati 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) Friday night. Capriati served for the match twice, led 5-2 in the third set, and 10 times was within two points of victory.

"When I came off the court, I felt the whole world was coming down on me, and that my heart was being ripped out," Capriati said. "It hurts."

How close was it? Each player won 127 points.

"I gave everything I had. I was cramping. Serving was very hard. I did my best. I could have lost this match. I am very happy," Henin-Hardenne said in an on-court interview. "It's very late. I need a good sleep."

After leaving the court, she was given IV fluids to treat the dehydration that caused her leg muscles to tighten, and she wasn't able to attend her postmatch news conference. Lying on a table in the trainer's room, she told a pool reporter it was "a big mistake" not asking for medical treatment during the match.

The WTA Tour said Henin-Hardenne will be evaluated Saturday, when she's supposed to play No. 1 Kim Clijsters, who dominated a dispirited Lindsay Davenport 6-2, 6-3 in the first semifinal.

After two straight all-Williams finals, the Open will have an all-Belgian championship match.

"I'll go on the court if I'm able to compete, if I'm able to fight. I think I will be able to do it. I think I was very brave today," Henin-Hardenne said.

She was criticized by Clijsters after getting treatment for blisters during the semifinal of a hard-court tournament in San Diego last month, and Henin-Hardenne said that entered her mind against Capriati.

"A lot of people talked about me very badly in the last few weeks," Henin-Hardenne said.

No matter how eager the countrywomen are to claim a first U.S. Open title, it's hard to imagine anything approaching what Henin-Hardenne and Capriati produced.

Capriati yelled at line judges about calls from the first set to the last, and she punched the air to celebrate winners as though each one came on match point. The crowd cheered some faults by Henin-Hardenne, although the partisanship didn't approach the behavior at the French Open, when the Belgian beat Serena Williams.

When the match ended early Saturday, Henin-Hardenne dropped to the ground and covered her head, before rising to go to the net. Capriati gave her a halfhearted handshake.

"I gave it all I had. She did, too. For whatever reason, I didn't win," Capriati said. "It's not the end of the world. Worse things can happen. Before, I might have been more devastated. Now, instead of looking at myself as a failure, I look it as I gave it all I had. I am only human. ...

"You can get such joy from winning, but there's also the other side of it."

It might be tough for Capriati, a master of comebacks, to recover from this loss. She served for the match at 5-3 in each of the last two sets.

"I thought the match was almost over," Henin-Hardenne said.

But she broke to 5-4 in the second set on a spectacular point. She hit a short shot, and Capriati made a long run to get it, flicking up a desperation backhand lob that landed just inside the baseline. Henin-Hardenne somehow got to that, turned and hit a desperation lob of her own that also barely landed in. Switching directions to give chase with her back to the net, Capriati put her racket on the ball, but it landed out.

That was part of a six-game run that gave Henin-Hardenne the second set and a 1-0 lead in the third.

"I had the match in my hands," Capriati said. "It was my match to win. I beat myself."

She was a bit out of sorts at the outset, too, vehemently arguing a call in the third game that TV replays appeared to show was correct. "It was this far out! This far out!" Capriati yelled, holding her index fingers a few inches apart.

Capriati lost her serve in that game and the fifth of the match to fall behind 4-1, the second break coming on a superb forehand return winner by Henin-Hardenne. But Capriati got her first break point of the match in the ensuing game and converted it when Henin-Hardenne jerked a forehand long.

That opened a run of five straight games for Capriati to end the first set, but not without more fireworks.

With Henin-Hardenne serving and ahead 4-3 at deuce, Capriati thought one of the Belgian's shots during a long rally landed out. When the point ended with a Henin-Hardenne drop shot, Capriati kicked the ball, then pointed at her eyes as she stomped toward the line judge. On the very next point -- which could have given the Belgian a 5-3 edge -- Henin-Hardenne sent a forehand near the baseline and, when there was no "Out" call, Capriati spun around, dropped her racket, and put her hands on her head. Then she waved her arms and screamed at the line judge.

During Capriati's display, the chair umpire overruled, saying the ball was out. That pleased Capriati -- although a TV replay showed the ball did indeed catch the line.

By now, Capriati was marking almost each point she won by gritting her teeth and pumping her fist in the direction of the guest box, where her father, brother and Friends star Matthew Perry were sitting.

Henin-Hardenne's celebrations were more muted, but she also looked to her box for encouragement, and threw uppercuts after the best of points.

In what amounted to an appetizer before the gourmet meal, Clijsters broke Davenport's serve four times in the first set alone and six times overall, all the while playing fantastic defensive tennis.

It helped that 1998 Open champion Davenport -- who slumped in her chair after the first set -- made 35 unforced errors, 19 more than Clijsters.

Clijsters drew yells of "oooh" from the fans when she would stretch out to reach a ball, extending her legs in opposite directions along the baseline the way Mary Lou Retton might. Perhaps Clijsters inherited the skill -- her mother was a gymnast.

"The splits? Against Lindsay I had to use them a lot," Clijsters said. "They help sometimes, not all the time."

It was the first time since 1999 that Davenport lost at the Open to someone other than Serena or Venus Williams. Davenport, seeded No. 3, must have figured this would be a fantastic chance to win a fourth Grand Slam title, with both sisters out injured.

Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters, of course, are aware of that opportunity, too.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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