- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England - Little-known Belgian Justine Henin Slam-dunked Jennifer Capriati and her bid to win a third straight major title at Wimbledon yesterday, burying the slugging American under a hail of devastating groundstrokes to gain tomorrow's singles final against defending champion Venus Williams.
"It's a magic day for me today," said the 19-year-old Henin after rallying from down a set and 2-1 in the second to a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory. "When it's 6-2, 2-1, and when you are so nervous, when Capriati played so well in the first, you don't think you can win a match like that. I came back because I stayed very, very cool."
And because once she settled the nerves that come with any Centre Court debut, Henin broke out an all-court arsenal that most as sumed was all but extinct in the women's game. After summoning the trainer to work on her blistered right foot at 2-1 down in the second set, she won nine of the next 11 games, turning a balky start into a rout.
The variety of the Belgian's attack was simply stunning. She won points at the net, gliding in behind perfectly placed approach shots and finishing with an array of angled volleys and hammered overheads. She won points with a nasty touch slice from both sides, conjuring visions of Steffi Graf. She won points via attrition, working a shell-shocked, tongue-wagging Capriati between the lines.
And despite being by far the smallest of the semifinalists in the women's draw at 5-foot-5, 120 pounds the other three averaged 6-0, 155 Henin played powerball as well, serving five aces to Capriati's one and dazzling from the baseline. She pounced on Capriati's suspect second serve for a slew of forehand return passing winners. Most impressive of all, she doled out hellacious shots from her backhand side, sending blur after blur past the dazed Capriati.
"I didn't lose it. She had to play well to beat me," said the 25-year-old Capriati, who seemed genuinely stunned after the loss. "Maybe I thought it was going to be too easy. Maybe I just lost my concentration there… . She just made a complete turnaround.
"You know, it was like a different player than from the beginning out there. She was just getting everything back. Then I was making the mistakes, so I backed off a little bit and she got more confidence. I think she was just going for it, like all or nothing, and she was just on."
The loss marked the end of Capriati's magic comeback season in which she transformed herself from burned-out '90s prodigy to the renaissance queen of the sports world. But given Henin's marvelous play, Capriati was more reflective than bitter after the defeat ended her Slam hopes.
"Everyone was making a big deal out of the Grand Slam but me," Capriati said. "I'm pretty happy with the way the year has gone so far. I mean, it's pretty hard to win one Grand Slam, so I'm pretty happy. It's not a disappointment at all. It would have been nice, but … oh, well."
Though the day marked the end of one memorable chapter in women's tennis, it could very well mark the beginning of another. Henin, a native of Liege, Belgium, started playing at the age of 5. She attended the French Open with her mother at 10 and vowed to contend at Roland Garros one day.
Her mother died of intestinal cancer two years later, a subject Henin refuses to discuss, but she kept her vow and made it to the semifinals on the clay last month. She lost her nerve in that match, blowing a 6-2, 4-2 lead against countrywoman Kim Clijsters. But yesterday Henin cleared that mental hurdle as well.
"I think it's a big victory for me mentally," said Henin, pronounced "Aa-nah." "After the French, I said, 'OK, next time I will take this opportunity.' Mentally, I'm stronger than in Paris."
And physically, she's as complete a player as the women's game has seen in some time.
"I'm delighted to see a player like this, because the women's game has started to turn into a lot of baseline grinding from power players," tennis guru Bud Collins said. "She plays the game the way I think it was meant to be played. She attacks from everywhere the baseline, the net. She mixes her speeds, has a lovely little cut shot, and then there's that backhand. Nobody in the women's game has a backhand like that it's just fluid joy. Yeah, she's a real breath of fresh air for the women's game."
Tomorrow, playing in her first major final, she has the chance to cement her elite status among the most imposing players in the women's game. The 21-year-old Williams dropped a surprisingly erratic Lindsay Davenport 6-2, 6-7 (1), 6-1 in the day's other semifinal. And though Williams lost to Henin last May on clay in their only meeting (Berlin), she is still the grande dame on grass until somebody proves otherwise.
"I don't like to go home without carrying a plate or a trophy or a title or something," Williams said. "I think that's motivation enough for me. I love winning here. Once you win here, it's pretty addictive."

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